As some readers may know, I've spent a fair amount of time over the last 5 years visiting Silliman's Blog. Ron reviewed a book I published in 2005 there, as well as posting a couple of long quotations from private e.mail correspondence before I began to comment on his blog comment box. (I came to the internet too late to participate in the Buffalo Listserv, which had already sort of been abandoned by the time I arrived.)
Thursday, August 6, 2009
Ron Silliman & His Blog
I first encountered Ron Silliman at Cody's Book Store in Berkeley. This has to have been about 1967. I was attending Berkeley as an English major. I'd seen him around in Berkeley a lot--he wore a tired old dirty yellow wide-wale corduroy coat, and his unruly blonde hair stuck out. In my junior year, I took my first course in writing with Robert Grenier, and began tentatively to think of myself as pursuing writing. I attended a couple of poetry readings; one, which was a vaguely anti-war occasion, took place at a school auditorium in Berkeley, and Ron was one of the participants. He read a poem which sounded to my ears a good deal like Kelly-Rothenberg-Eshleman-Spicer, with heavily accented line-breaks, and some "soft" "deep"-imagery. This kind of writing was very prevalent at the time, and would continue to attract devotees for another 6-8 years, before petering out. I think of it as one aspect of the New American Poetry that grew out of Black Mountain, picked up some steam from the environmental movement, counter-cultural anthropology, etc.
My first contact with Ron must have been when I sent poems to him for consideration in Tottles, the little mimeo that Ron published for a few years in the late Sixties and early Seventies. Ron may have heard about me from our mutual friend Barry Watten, who had followed me by one year to the University of Iowa Workshop. Ron and Barry had known each other in Berkeley, before I ever knew of them. When our workshop days concluded, both Barry and I found our separate ways back to the Bay Area, and it was then, when Barry and Ron shared an apartment in the Mission District of San Francisco, I believe, that we first met, though it may have been a year or so earlier. This would have been about 1973. I was married, and had a young son, by that point, but Barry and Ron were unattached, and would remain so for some years longer. I had begun working for the government, a position I imagined was to be a temporary gig, little realizing that I would remain in it for 27 years, retiring in 2001, just nine days before 9/11.
We were all aspiring poets at that point, and were trying to figure out ways to make a living while still finding time to read and write. The system of teaching-grants-publication seemed largely closed to us, and, given our aesthetic proclivities, our financial and career prospects looked fairly bleak. Barry ended up as a typesetter for the West Coast Print Center, Ron did some social work. My commitment had to be greater, since I was supporting a family.
As my family and work obligations increased, I found I had less and less time to devote to writing, while Barry and Ron began to participate in a growing regional literary movement which eventually coalesced into what they now self-describe as the "Language Movement". Had I not started a family and a career, I would probably have become a card-carrying Language Poet in the mid- to late 1970's. On the other hand, I was never a joiner or the clubby type, and had I not been providing some kind of support for my wife and child, I suppose my marriage would have collapsed, along with my fragile self-confidence. I had grown up in Napa in the 1950's, and was never an "urban" kid. I tended to think of poetry-writing as a private matter, rather than a social and political act. I rather found readings and lectures stifling affairs, embarrassing and filled with tension.
Ron and Barry, on the other hand, craved public exposure, and wanted to further their literary careers. I had started a magazine, L, and had gotten grants to publish books (Bill Berkson's Blue Is the Hero, Ted Greenwald's Common Sense, Robert Grenier's Sentences Towards Birds, Patrick Schnoor's Sonnets, my own Stanzas For An Evening Out, Larry Eigner's My God/the Proverbial, among others). My book was a summary of the work I had done since my undergraduate years at Berkeley, the Iowa period, up to about 1976. In an act of kindness and generosity, Ron reviewed my book in the San Francisco Book Review, finding in my scattered formalities an implied eclecticism which turned out to be a wholly accurate reading. I was a writer who had not found himself; that was the message of the book.
During the late 1970's and 1980's, Ron and I met occasionally for coffee or lunch in San Francisco, where we both worked. I think we shared a number of common interests, but my preoccupation with fulfilling the demands of family and parenthood clearly was diverting me from art and literature, and I think Ron could see that a friendship based on mutual literary ambition wasn't going anywhere. As his determination and involvement in writing grew and intensified, mine was increasingly frustrated.
In the Eighties, I would pursue an academic degree in design (Landscape Architecture), and stop writing altogether for a period of about 15 years. So, in a manner of speaking, "I spent the best years of my life" in drudgery and duty, years that I might have been getting a Ph.D. (I'd abandoned that path at Iowa after only one year in the doctoral track, and deciding not to resume it at Berkeley in 1973). During these years, I traveled a good bit, coached some boys' baseball, got a Master's in LA, fly-fished, spent a year in Japan, and began to collect books.
In a larger sense, my account of my mostly "off-again" relationship with Ron is the story of my own life. In the early years of this century, with the appearance of the internet and blogs and websites, I was finally freed from the obligations of duty. We lost our son in 1996 to an automobile accident, my wife's career in the computer industry flowered during the Nineties, and by the time of my retirement in 2001, I finally found time, at long last, to think about writing, an avocation that had lain dormant for a decade and a half. As a full-fledged honorable mention on the Neglectoreno Project website, I'm here to tell you that the neglect was all my fault, not the result of people not appreciating me.
Ron and Barry started their families about 10 years after I had. I can still recall how boring and dreary all that milky, sticky family stuff seemed to them in the 1970's. Why couldn't we all just go out and play? Because the alarm clock went off at 5 AM, and the kid had to be picked up at the babysitter's at 4, and the mortgage payments were due by the 5th of each month, that's why. My failure to find a path towards an eventual identity consistent with my early literary efforts, I now regard as a voluntary sacrifice. But it was a pathway I felt bound to take. I knew that had I chosen the straight academic path, I'd have ended up working in a small rural college, probably in the South, isolated and forlorn. If I'd insisted on doing some kind of quasi-literary work, we'd have sunk into poverty and desperation, an eventuality that seemed less and less attractive.
Silliman's Blog was among the first sites I began to visit regularly when I logged onto the internet. Almost everything Ron talked about sounded utterly familiar, and I had no trouble finding (often contentious) things to say in response to his frequently sweeping assertions and pronouncements. After awhile, people began to think, I suppose, that I was almost his sidekick. But our relationship, such as it was, or is, wouldn't qualify as anything but a mild acquaintance. As I drifted away from writing in the late Seventies, so did the friends I had in it. Ron has been faithful and accommodating throughout our "online" friendship; but I wouldn't want to speculate upon how much of that kindness is pure nostalgia.
As Ron's star has risen, I've been encouraged to see that someone whose work I always imagined, from the start, would eventually succeed, has managed to propel himself to a position of prominence and authority. But we don't agree on a lot of things, and I feel no reluctance to express that difference. This has caused a number of disagreements, frequently leading to his censuring my comments. This is a policy I question, inasmuch as it should be perfectly obvious that if you believe someone is wrong about something, the best way to deal with it is to let that person display their opinions openly; if indeed they're as wrong as you believe them to be, won't that become obvious over time?
As I've said before here in my statement of blog policy, using selective moderation to control debate is a dishonest way of presenting issues, and Ron shouldn't be doing this in the interests of controlling his agenda. It's possible, I suppose, that people will censure you for your own good, but in my experience, the real reason people censure you is to avoid addressing, or making public, concerns which they find uncomfortably challenging. Refusing a post of mine, for instance, in which I criticize our sitting President, constitutes a form of censorship, no matter what excuse he uses. "I can censor it because it's my website, and only certain kinds of comments or objections will be tolerated." Well, okay. But that only makes philosophical sense if what you're doing is inherently partisan. Why have a comment box at all, if your primary purpose is the presentation of a kind of propaganda? Is it just to field bland, tame approbation? I find Silliman's refusal to actively engage his commentary, also to be a disingenuous tendency. Blogging is an often chaotic marketplace of free-floating opinion, multi-contextual, and difficult to control. But that unpredictability, its unmanageable flow, is what makes it vital.
I have no doubt that Ron now thinks of me as an embarrassment to his online agenda as high priest of post-Modern literary theory and thinking. But I don't mind. I am uncooperative, and I like to break rules, question authority. If the price of friendship is not being allowed to voice one's opinions, the price is too high.