This is a series of posts composed by Adam Fieled as blogger-in-residence at the Poetry International festival in London in 2008. The festival was held at the Southbank Centre, which is also the home of London’s Poetry Library.
I. First, a few words of introduction. My name is Adam Fieled, and I’m a poet based in Philadelphia. I got my undergrad degree at U of Penn, my MFA at New England College, and am now getting an MA (I’ve almost already gotten) and a PhD at Temple here in Philly. My books include Opera Bufa, When You Bit.., and Beams. I’ve also done a fair amount of recording, including two albums, Darkyr Sooner and Ardent. These are the facts; the truth, as Tom Stoppard pointed out in The Invention of Love, is something else entirely and is the product of our imaginations. The truth, in this case, is that I’m a gypsy artist in search of freedom: aesthetic, intellectual, social, sexual, psychological. My gyspy soul would love to take the first available plane to London, to celebrate poetry and freedom the way it is meant to be celebrated; unfortunately, monetary circumstances preclude this from being a feasible reality. Nevertheless, I would like to join in your festival in the most palpable way I can; by addressing poetry, freedom, and the conjunction of the two, that is as close to heaven as we are likely to experience in this world of strife and uncertainty.
What do we all see in poetry? Since I cannot speak for anyone else but myself, I will try to speak from as close to an imagined center as I can get. We are replenished by poetry not because it directly represents our world, but because it comes at our world from an angle (tell it slant, Dickinson said); what it shows us are forgotten pathways, missed connections, what glory lives in interstices, what we missed when we were going through the routines of toil, acquisition, loss and gain that constitute life in the material world. Poetry manages at once to be material and non-material; it is there, solid and chewable as bread, and yet it magic carpets us into this realm where the connections we missed provide edification, arousal, sustenance, determination and spiritual strength. This is how it sets us free.
There is, of course, work involved in the process. For every enlightened reader, there is a solitary artist struggling for expression, to find those missed connections, to forage in the interstices of consciousness. The work is back-breaking, lonely, frustrating, sometimes thankless, but it is one of the best bits of spiritual labor that a human being can engage in. I had a friend once tell me that being a Poet is like being a Priest; I would rather think of poets, the good ones, the real ones, as Bodhisattvas, carrying this troubled human tribe on their backs, moving things forward one heart-rending step at a time. For all of those who struggle for a scrap of real, hard-earned, cried-for, starved-for, bled-for bit of freedom, all of us owe many thanks (though we may be also rolling our own Sisyphean bolders up hills of our choosing). Think of those who fought most valiently; think of Lorca and Neruda, of Whitman and Hughes, of Ginsberg and Corso and Shelley. Shelley thought that poets were the unacknowledged legislators of the world; we know that, insane as his idealism seems, he was right. Poets shape the most crucial, most lasting cultural visions.
I am imagining myself now in London. It’s autumn and chilly and I am listening to someone read. I may be drunk or in the process of getting drunk; I may be on the prowl or contented; I may be waiting my turn to read or I might have already read. In any case, I hear a metaphor, a cadence, that is new and that sings to me; I hear a voice that expresses my own humanity, but in such a way that I have never it, or myself, before; I feel the words mix with the sensation of wine and I am not where I am, I am above myself, I am circling around the ceiling. I am listening to a poet do his job properly; I am experiencing art as it is meant to be experienced, in the flesh; I am one step closer to a permanent sense of emancipation from the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. I wish this experience to everyone who is taking part in the festival at hand. I am with you in spirit.
II. I just got out of a very tedious academic seminar. I was thinking, as the seminar progressed, just how wide the gulf is between loving literature and studying it (especially in a formalized setting, such as we in academia have become accustomed to). Rather than hankering after what I know must be an exciting time in London right now, I have decided to look at the advantages of public spectacles like poetry festivals, in comparison to poetry, as it is taught to PhD candidates, MFA students, and the like. One could ask a very obvious question: did Shakespeare need an MFA? The stock answer would be that no, Shakespeare was a universal genius and thus did not need an MFA. Why, then, are so many poets (myself included) caught up in an academic rat race? Why are we collecting degrees? The most obvious answer is that we, poets, like everyone else in society, need to make money to earn a living and take care of our responsibilities. We need cars (I don’t, living as I do in center city Philadelphia, but many do), homes, clothes, food, drink, all the accoutrements of civilized life. Academia offers us a route that has at least a tangential relationship to creating poetry; we may not be making money from our books or our public appearances, but a knowledge of literature, if applied conventionally, can be parlayed into a decent living. Yet, all of us poet/academicians know that there are many things missing from the academic equation. Excitement, certainly; spontaneity, definitely; freedom to explore where there are no boundaries, of course. If we want to retain the essential excitement of the creative moment, we who ride this balance between poetry and academia will have to create a space somewhere else, in a different kind of terrain.
This is the beauty of an International Poetry Festival; it gives free spirits a defined, circumscribed, yet fundamentally open play-space, a vista with the right combination of bounded and unboundedness. If things aren’t defined enough, they fall apart (“the center cannot hold”); if they are too defined, as in the academy, one’s breath is stifled, one’s heart beats too slowly, one’s limbs are constrained. Despite aesthetic scrupulousness, despite qualms we might have with the notion of being “public artists,” I think that all of us, as poets, would like our work to reach a wide(r) audience. The Festival atmosphere (as I imagine it) is conducive to public displays that yet evince no vulgarity; to reaching audiences without strain or undue clamor; to broadening one’s consciousness without being hemmed in by a sense of competition, rivalry, fractiousness, or intimidation. It is a manifestation of the melting-pot impulse, in which all of the arts may take wing, blossom, develop, settle, and then be shaken up again. We are, all of us, at the mercy of different forces at work within our lives: of duties to family, physical or emotional handicaps, limited funds (that’s a big one for poets), societal pressures (to conform and thus to submit, to be safe and thus be controlled), and of our own limitations. Making one’s way in the world, in this Digital day and age, with the world economy collapsing and war escalating, is a tiring fight. A Buddhist once told me, you must know that everyone you meet is fighting a terrible battle, and he was right.
Back to the seminar: I have a stipend from my University, I am being paid to be there. Yet, as the second hour drags painfully into the third, I am heartened that I can speak and that some of you may listen. This is in spite of a physical distance that I cannot surmount, in spite of cultural differences or aesthetic differences or any other differences that can and will obstruct proper communication. It means that as I sit there, trying to absorb things that have very little ultimate meaning for me, I am a little less at the mercy of those great, soul-killing impersonal forces than I otherwise would be. I, Adam Fieled, am a part of a whole that is greater than myself (even if this whole is temporally bounded and impermanent). It makes me more able to bear up against the waves of stifled boredom that pound around and inside my head. Simply put, it gives me hope. Maybe hope is fragile, maybe it is fleeting, maybe it will inevitably wind up being pounded to death by the too-concrete facts of all of our lives. Yet we may carry with us little tokens, little reminders that there exists another world within this world, a world where (finally) we have the space to create the way we want to, where our works pays dividends (material and otherwise), where we speak and someone listens. It is this imagined world that got me through the tediousness of another day in academia, and it is this world that I hope you are creating in the London of my dreams.
III. I am in the middle of conducting an interview with a fine poet based in the Midwestern United States. I asked this poet about history, and to what extent individual poets need to both acknowledge its existence and to give an account of themselves as possible players within it. He responded that to privilege one’s self with historical significance is a delusion; that those who feel that they are, or may be, “writing for the ages”, are trapped in mind-forged manacles, have created a personal Golgotha in which to languish, suffer, and perish. I agree with this to an extent; it is pretentious to claim historical significance, in the miasmic wilderness that is Western poetry circa 2008, where aesthetic codes and approaches clash so bitterly, and with so much frequency. On the other hand, had Blake, Hopkins, Shelley, Keats, Baudelaire, Dickinson, Whitman, Spicer, Olson, Zukofsky or so many others claimed historical significance for themselves (when no substantial public response validated their work), they would have been correct. Didn’t Keats say, “I thank I shall be among the English Poets after my death”? In the end, it’s all a mind-forged manacle, because, as Professor Ramsey noted in Woolf’s To the Lighthouse, the simplest stone we kick will outlive Shakespeare. Those of us with the luck to be of some enduring importance will still only survive a brief span, as tiny spasms of light and movement, in a universe that has endured for billions of years.
A billion years: who could fathom such a thing? It may ultimately wiser to adopt the Walter Pater-ian stance; that we need to surely and securely grasp the most delectable moments of our lives, and purely for the sake of those moments. I think of the poetry moments that have meant the most to me: of the first supportive e-mail I received from a well-known poet, when I was 22; of the month that followed, in which I wrote my first decent poems; of my first major publication in a print journal, when I was 24; of working with Anne Waldman in my MFA program; of having my first article in Jacket; and, lest I forget, of discovering a handful of UK poets who have revolutionized the way I see, approach, and compose poetry. All of these moments had one essential thing in common: each one took me out of a structured, defined past and an uncertain present and delivered me into a future of promise, possibility, and a sense of the boundless. They, in effect, killed off my personal history, as it had accrued to my mind, body, and heart, and made me alive to the perpetual new-ness, freshness, present-ness of life. I believe it is this process, of delivering the future, and a future bright with promise, that is the essential endeavor of good art. Moments change; it may be canny, as Pater noted, to savor these moments as ends-in-themselves. Perhaps the moment of promise IS the promise, the moment of future possibility IS the future possibility, and so forth. Perhaps questions of historicity can be deferred for as long as history (our history, at least) lasts. Perhaps it is our job simply to keep creating moments to live for.
How many of us are capable of conveying this past-destroying energy, this live-wire dynamism, in the context of a poetry performance? This I cannot say. I have seen it done before, but not too many times. A reading I did in Brooklyn this March had that quality. It wasn’t even particularly well-attended, but every poet that read was breathing and delivering life and death. Certainly I have felt the same thing in Chicago, and occasionally in Philadelphia. It is said the devil is in the details, but it must also be said that angels dwell in details as well; the most enjoyable readings have wine, other liquor, involved, and a bit of sex (why not be honest?), and a bit danger. Readings, in short, that show us that there is something at stake in the things we create. We are not merely adding decoration to an already overly-festooned world; we are creating the fabric of ourselves, so that self-presentation becomes a means of both self-preservation and self-perpetuation. With every new book, new series, we are casting off a skin (molting) and growing a new one, and when we read we can, must, have to expose our skin. If we fall flat on our faces, we get up and move on. If we hit the mark, a few people will have made the journey with us, will have been given a moment to remember, will have added a chapter (brief or lengthy) to their history, which is also ours. This joining of selves is spiritual intercourse, which can be as thrilling, sometimes more thrilling, than physical intercourse. It is in these moments that history ceases to exist, that we grab the brass ring of the timeless and do flips on it. So I have to conclude that my Midwestern friend is correct; history, when it is dragged through the mud of egotism, is a Golgotha. When it is shared and created together, it is, or can be, the intersection of time and the timeless.
IV. Are transgressions productive? Do they contribute to widening our field of understanding, or are they merely a persistent annoyance, destructive to relationships and stable communities? I have had experiences that would suggest that neither answer is adequate; that some transgressions are productive, while others really serve no purpose but to separate people, drive them more deeply into cliques and/or solitude. The question that follows from this is simple: what is the right way to transgress? The best answer I can give is that positive transgressions are transgressions that actually happen in poems, rather than between people. Lord knows this can get thorny, too: poets since Alexander Pope (remember the Dunciad?) and before have been deprecating others in verse. While Pope’s genius elevated his creations into canonical greatness (though whether or not we want to posit a canon, in a multi-cultural milieu such as this festival, is contentious), most nasty poems do not succeed in being anything but nasty. Nevertheless, I’d rather hear about a nasty poem than hear about two poets who got in a fist-fight, or a screaming argument, or who won’t talk to each other because of some petty dispute. I still haven’t answered my own question, but I’m getting closer.
It seems to me that all of us are, in one way or another, rebelling against something when we sit down to write. This is true because all of us bear the burden of many different levels of history: our own personal history, our history as artists, and the history of the art-form itself. We are all familiar with the voices that tell us what we can and cannot do (whether they are interior or exterior voices does not particularly matter in this context). Many of us have had the experience (some of us several times) of joining a community of poets, expecting affirmation, recognition, and sustenance, and finding instead a Master Narrative of We-are-right-and-all-others-are-wrong, or Our-way-or-the-highway, or We’re-not-going-to-tell-you-what-we-think-of-you. Poets are people; people are often full of shit. If one is going to transgress, it stands to reason that one should commit transgressions against these full-of-shit people. Yet, direct combat is pointless; poetry may, as Auden said, make nothing happen, but direct combat creates only bruises, bloated responses, the manifestation of ugly defense mechanisms and never-ending battles. I think that the best way to fight is by creating work that speaks in a new, unclassifiable, vital voice. This is trickier than it sounds; so many of us are caught up in imitation (conscious or unconscious), rote expression (saying what has been said), and pretense (believing we are creating something new as we fall all over ourselves in unintelligibility or obviousness). So, it would seem that the only good way to transgress is to be a genius. But this is obviously inadequate; there must be a better way.
I think positive transgression, ultimately, is a matter of having guts and doing what you want. Any artist worth his or her salt know that conformity (aesthetic and otherwise) is a constant temptation, and that conformity often offers more immediate (and sometimes even more substantial) rewards than individuality does. How was Blake rewarded for Los and Urizen and Golgonooza? He was not rewarded, period. Yet he obviously was able to find the fire he needed to continue to create the way he wanted to create. I am not in London, so it is hard for me to say how this festival is unfolding (nicely, if this blog is any indication); still, I would wager that even when the backdrop is near-Utopian, some will feel that they are being hemmed in. When we do feel hemmed in, we have two choices: to pick up the party-line (whatever the particular party-line happens to be), aping capitulation, or to go our own way, resigning ourselves to a certain amount of privation so that we might create the way we want to create. The best transgressions happen in private, far from the madding crowd; they are initiated by individuals who have given up the ideas of fame and glory, who create only because they must, and who count on absolutely no response from the outside world. “The transgressions of saints” seems like a contradictory idea, but I believe that in literature it is a reality. I am not claiming sainthood for myself; far from it. I’m blogging right now for a specific audience and with that audience in mind. What I hope is that, in the midst of the festival, everyone could take a moment here and there to remember that many of our greatest dreams are dreamed alone. And then knock back another glass.