Thursday, February 06, 2014

6 february

(giving up for the nonce on descriptive titles...)

Two recent publications, accessible online:

•A piece on Robert Duncan's H. D. Book, in the context of a mystical or "gnostic" modernism, courtesy of Ed Foster's Talisman: here.

•A review of Robert Archambeau's The Poet Resigns: Poetry in a Difficult World, from Notre Dame Review: here.


Expect perhaps more silence than usual this spring: the semester is turning out to be a real bear, with a set of teaching assignments that I'm finding more than merely a grind. But I have been writing poems—a series of 10-line things, a trifle less paratactic than the little gristly bits of Torture Garden, but less lax & expansive than the longer poems of Red Arcadia. I'll probably call a halt to this current "sequence" when it hits some sort of talismanic number—maybe 100, or 150, or something; right now I'm somewhere in the 40s, tho I'm not keeping close count.

Two weeks hence I'll be packing to go to Louisville, where I've cooked up something of a mini-celebration of the recent Flood Editions reprint of Ronald Johnson's ARK. Some tasty goings on, I hope. Peter O'Leary, RJ's executor and editor of this lovely new edition, will be there, as will other luminaries, including some very dear old friends. I of course am still sweating over my talk, which will attempt to read ARK as some species of science fiction.

Which has been much on my mind: once again, like last year, I've committed to the International Conference on the Fantastic in the Arts. And like last year, I'm trembling in my newish Doc Martens at the prospect of (re-)venturing into the world of SF/Fantasy criticism. Perhaps it's because I've spent a good deal of time learning about the field since last year. I've read a solid lump of criticism, and quite a few novels. I've thought a lot. And the more I think, the more I read, the more I realize I don't know. This isn't simply the jitters of embarking on a new expansion of the "knowledge base," as I did when I set out to come to terms with Ruskin & his surround.

My anxieties about ICFA, and my whole venture into the SF/fantasy field, are tied up with my growing sense of ageing, of getting older. Yes, I’ve gotten to the point in my life and career where I am in the upper middle of the academic demographic; in the wrong half of my 40s I am older than probably half of the people in the profession I meet, and as a tenured full professor with a decent teaching load at a large state university, I have more disciplinary consecration than the vast majority. But the conferences I go to—and ICFA in particular—are dominated by people younger than myself, by graduate students and young scholars; and those younger people, simultaneously, are far more deeply versed in the subject matter.

 It has something I know to do with the intensity of interest we bring to our obsessions in youth. When I was sixteen, I knew more about certain things than anyone else I knew: I knew a particular strain of alternative rock music backwards and forwards; I knew certain fantasy authors (and, to a lesser degree, certain science fiction authors); I knew literature. And I had a kind of endless energy for adding to that knowledge. When I bought a new Moorcock book, I would read it with a passionate intensity, fitting it into the fictive universe he had created, judging how well it dovetailed with the scores of other Moorcock novels I had read. When I bought a new record, I brought it home immediately and shut myself in my room; I listened to intensely, following along with the lyric sheet, probably three times in the first day, and a dozen times over the week to come.

 It’s very hard (imposible?) to replicate that intensity in middle age. When a book comes out by an author I’m deeply invested in, I buy it immediately—but I don’t immediately set aside time to read it, and re-read it. When a new album comes out by a musician I’m interested in, I’ll dutifully download, but there’s no guarantee I’ll listen through it more than once in the first week.

When I was a kid I was a fan, but I was never a member of fandom per se, either for the musicians I liked or the books I read. That, I am beginning to see, has been a great absence in my life, and in some ways continues to be. I’ve never, in any of my substantial endeavours, felt that I’m a part of community—I’ve always been going it along, whether reading Moorcock as a 14-year-old, reading Ruskin as a 40-year-old, or painting model soldiers earlier this year. Fandom provides (especially the young) enthusiast for any given cultural field a social context in which ideas and enthusiasms can be discussed and tested—a community. (The only times I’ve felt a member of an active community, alas, were in the MFA program at Cornell and among the scholar-poets who are interested in the same poets I’ve written about.)

And there is still a very intense atmosphere of fandom in the SF/fantasy community. Perhaps I got off to the wrong start in reading John Clute’s criticism. Clute frankly seems to have read everything in his field, and much of his criticism revolves around how writers fit in in with what has already been done within the field—how the genre has historically developed, that is. It’s quite intimidating to confront this kind of encyclopedic generic knowledge, especially when there’s been something like a twenty-year lapse in my own investment in SF/fantasy, roughly from when I went off to Cornell for grad school to about five years ago, when I started seriously looking back at the books I had so loved in adolescence. The ideal SF/fantasy scholar, I suspect, is someone who began reading the books much as I did—as a maladjusted teenager, intensely and copiously—but who early on formed links with the fan community at large, and who never gave up on their interest.

Which doesn’t mean necessarily that such an ideal scholar goes to grad school to study SF/fantasy, but that she or he doesn’t toss those books aside as I did in favor of “serious” literature. I now find myself back-pedaling, looking back at the SF/f canon to find things I value in the same way I value Joyce and Nabokov and Woolf and so forth, and retooling my critical instruments to think usefully about the sources of value in books that were not written with the evaluative criteria of mundane literature in mind.
Frankly, it does not help matters to be reading A. E. Van Vogt and Ulysses at the same time.


Ray Davis said...

For whatever it's worth, I've found a wholesome portion of the ICFA/Readercon/WisCon contingent (including Clute) welcoming towards oddities like us. Sure, there are jerks on all sides who can only interpret perplexity as cause for hostility, but friendly curiosity seems as common. Maybe because those spots tend to be writer-heavy, and many of the writers we read also entered the community without a lifetime of fandom behind them.

Anonymous said...

I'll make sure to check out ARK. It seems to be one of those long encyclopedic poems that I am particularly fond of. I had problems finding any secondary literature on it, though.

E. M. Selinger said...

My own experience moving into a new field (pop romance) was a bit different, because the quality of scholarship there was so spotty, and there was simply so little of it, compared to the vast quantity of books to be studied. What you may find, if my own experience is any guide, is that the time away from poetry makes you hanker to read it again, but you do so differently, sometimes in interesting new ways. Perhaps you're discovering that already with Ron? Looking forward to that talk (no pressure!); mine won't be up to my earlier standards, I fear, but if things start to flag, I can always bust a handstand, or a move.