Friday, June 05, 2009
"Anything with an edge": Rethinking Post-Avant
Many definitions have been posited for post-avant. There was a flurry of action about five months ago, in which I and a handful of other poets had it out over what post-avant means and what it does not. It was my impression that no general consensus was reached, and that much had been said but little of it had a substantial impact. This goes, certainly, for the things I said too; I do not privilege my own formulations here. Nonetheless, I think the discussion is a worthwhile one, and thinking about it has led me to some new conclusions. Here is the original definition I posited for post-avant: the diasporic movement of Language Poetry towards a new synthesis with erotic and narrative elements. That's roughly it. What I have been thinking over the last week is slightly different, and simpler. It is defining post-avant poetry as anything with an edge. This begs some immediate questions. What do we mean when we say that a poem, or a book of poems, has an edge? How do we strictly define edgy poetry? Colloquially, if it is said that something has an edge, it usually denotes that it is pointed, direct, sharp, and that it skirts the uncomfortable or the unsettling. It may deal, thematically, with a difficult issue, or it may take an unusual stance on an issue that has become stuck in a rut of settled representations.
These are the names of some poets you will see mentioned in the days to come: Jordan Stempleman, Brooklyn Copeland, Nick Moudry, Mary Walker Graham, Stacy Blair, Jason Bredle, David Prater. To start with: all share a sense of vested intensity in representations of affective extremity in collusion with delicate, sensuous handling of metaphor and prosodic effects. What I call edgy in them may be an edge of humor, or of sexual hunger, or of desperate longing for any kind of transcendence, over circumstance or sense. Why this edge leads these poets away from disjuncture, back into narrative and erotic engagements, is that the ultimate textual idea or ideal here is fulsomeness, of being well-rounded, or of being a synecdoche of what is most compellingly human, humane. Avant-gardism, with its willful obfuscations, finds its wings clipped on one side; Centrism's insipidity and hackneyed expressionism finds its wings clipped on the other. Interesting to me is that so many of these poets were raised, nurtured, and found their voices in the Midwestern United States. How long has Indiana been waiting to express itself in a profound way?
The Midwest is in the middle of things, where the larger United States is concerned; so is post-avant poetry, as I have defined it here. If, because interrogations of text and textual efficacy must remain a post-avant imperative, the connection to Language poetry must remain staunch, it is nevertheless the case that post-avant can never settle for less then a cards-on-the-table confession of general emotional urgency and expressive intensity. Thus, the ways and means these poets have of developing this dichotomous dynamic- avant-garde interrogations towards linguistic innovation, offsetting a Neo-Romantic sense of appreciation of emotional and aesthetic gravitas- will be what we look into, hopefully with a refreshed sense of solid ground being broken, and with it a strain of American art guaranteed to live a long and healthy life in the world.