This presentation is supposed to be about an Issue in Writing, I have materials for us to look at and discuss, but in the past few days an issue has been raised by another teacher in the program in regards to my MFA project, and it seems I haven’t been clear enough about my project, so I’d like to clear that up first. In order to do that I have to be very clear about the context behind my project. I think this will provoke a good discussion, so please bear with me while I outline the context.
On the first day of class we had about a minute to tell the class about ourselves and our work. I quickly explained that because of the discriminatory laws of the US federal government, when my female partner got a job as a tenure track professor at [university name edited out], I was unable to legally move with her from Toronto to New York, because our relationship is not recognized by US immigration authorities. I had to obtain a visa to stay here by some other means, and the only real choice was becoming a student. Hence my appearance in this MFA program, even though I am an award-winning mid-career poet with four books published by established literary presses and my work taught on graduate level English lit classes in several universities in North America.
Now obviously it is a strange situation for all of us to have me in this class. But it’s important to note that my situation is not unique in some ways. I have a number of other peers with multiple books and who have taught in colleges for years who are also being forced to go back to school and get the MFA credential that has become essential to getting any creative writing teaching work in North America. There is a big critique in the literary community about this, because as you well know, writers generally have to go into huge debt in order to pay for the MFA. The critique of the MFA as a disciplining institution acting as a cash cow for university endowment programs has been going on for years, and is in fact kind of clichéd.
Back to the one minute intro from the first day, I also told you I was working on a conceptual writing project where 85 writers, artists and thinkers from across North America had donated written and visual material to me, and that I would make poems for the MFA from this material. I also said I had a blog for this project. What I didn’t have time to say is that my project is called The Tolerance Project, and it is using the constraint of having to make poems only from the donated material as a means to examine the constraints that I have had to go through and am operating under in order to be here in the US and in this MFA program. I am of course here in this class partly because the US federal government doesn’t “tolerate” queer people. It was only the other day that Congress finally decided that killing people just because they’re queer actually is a hate crime, and they seem to be approaching the thought of repealing the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy, so that, as Philly poet CA Conrad quipped at an event last night, the US military can finally put rainbow stickers on tanks and machine guns. My point is that the US government is very far from recognizing my same-sex relationship and enabling me to live here freely with my partner on the spousal visa that I would have easily received if I had been a man.
Obviously you can gather that a key aspect of my work is its political content. But I’ve always approached that work through polyvocality and the use of investigative documentary sources and practices. I never have just one voice and stance in my poems; they are always multiple and generated from large archives of collected research material. The book I have coming out in the spring is on Israel-Palestine and has only three phrases in it made by “me.” The rest is all collaged from human rights documents, books and other sources. Hence the reason that The Tolerance Project is framed as a collaborative project, where I have collected an archive of material to work with. I don’t believe in originality or the supremacy of the authorial voice. I agree with Walt Whitman that we each contain multitudes, multiple voices framed by our interactions with the various people, technologies, media and institutions that we deal with every day, and I let those multitudes be on the page.
I’m not sure if any of you has gone to my blog over the past six weeks since the start of the program. The blog was easy to find by googling me, and it was never meant to be a secret. The reason I have a blog is so that the 85 people who contributed to the project can see when I have used their donation in a poem. I have given every donor a barcode and post the barcodes used after the poem so they can check and see if their barcode has come up. They get barcodes not just to play up the DNA aspect of them contributing a poetic trace of themselves, but also so that the donors remain anonymous until the end of the project. This is intentional so that no one is distracted by reading the poem through the lens of a particular recognized author’s name. I truly see these poems as collaborations and have had some fascinating discussions regarding originality and subjectivity as a result of the comments made in the comments section of the blog and elsewhere. The blog encourages the public to make comments and give feedback on the poems, with the aim of my revising the poems based on cumulative feedback as an aspect of the final MFA thesis. I guess you could say it’s kind of a like a reality tv show for poets.
The key problem that seems to have arisen unbeknownst to me is regarding my taking the constructive criticism that you put on the poems I brought to class and putting this criticism on the blog in a completely anonymous form. I never assumed this would be a problem, and if there was a problem I assumed that people in the class who went to the blog would have told me. So for example, for the poem, “the Tradition,” the one on breastfeeding and all the chemicals in the milk, I wrote on the blog all of the workshop feedback I thought would be constructive to start with in terms of revising the poem. Here’s exactly what I wrote preceding that poem (btw, since this controversy I have taken down all the comments and we can discuss that more in a minute):
Some comments on Poem 2: “Poem has too much repetitions. It grates on listener’s/reader’s ear”; “a little preachy...look at tuning some passages of melodrama”; “I almost wanted to see some less robotic mixing in the beginning”; “I think plain, clear language could make it stronger, ie cut the repetition of not really me and simply refer to it as a child…it gets worn from overuse”; “hmmm very both motherhood and sex, lube and oils, perhaps just my reading”; “'economics and labor time and biology' could be too direct”; “reminds me of The Talking Heads’ 'Heaven'”;“'Hand this over./Pass this on' feels a little chain-letter like to me”; “'raisons' as intentional misspelling?”;“Follows some directions of the 'contemporary' canon, but explosive”; “Suggests the speaker is a kind of machine, so the speaker is the engine oil, what needs the additive.”
So that’s an example of what I would write preceding a poem (and just for the record, I don’t have a child). I deliberately didn’t post the positive comments, because they don’t really help in the revising process. The aim was that the online public would look at the poem and the comments and make more comments on the poem, that it would open up the workshopping of the project poems beyond just the few voices here. And that I could show donors actual critique on their poetic donations from relatively unbiased MFA students. Many donors are established poets from earlier generations that didn’t have to take an MFA in order to teach. So the project plays with the interesting fact that many of the people of earlier generations that are teaching poetry workshops have never actually undergone the workshop process themselves. In fact, one thing I like about being here is learning from established writers like [name edited out] how to teach these types of classes.
Given that all the comments were completely anonymous and blurred together as a collective response, I had no idea it would be violating the “privacy” and “sanctity” of the MFA workshop, as I have recently been told. I’ve never been in an institutional workshop. In fact, the only workshop I’ve ever taken was a two-day one almost 20 years ago where I actually wrote my first poem. I worked on my poems and books first with carefully matched mentors, then with peers and peer editors. I have also edited a number of books of poetry myself and was the founding poetry editor for The Walrus magazine, which is like a New Yorker or Harper’s for Canada.
The focus of my project is not this particular MFA. The blog doesn’t even name where the MFA is taking place, as what is most important for my project is that it is a collaborative take on the MFA as an institution within larger state apparatuses. That is the key concept behind my project, a deconstruction of how “authors” and “voices” are created through the process of the MFA, linked with how difference is “tolerated” (or not) in general in the US. I wanted to provoke a look at how the MFA works as a process, by deliberately blowing up the authorial creation and feedback process beyond this room. There is a long tradition in the art world of looking at the workings of art institutions such as art museums and art collecting practices and the creation of the artist as a commodity. In fact, if you remember the poem I brought last week about Adrienne Rich and the form letter…that is from my book Human Resources that looks at capitalist and corporate structures and even has a poem about famous American conceptual artist Andrea Fraser videotaping herself having sex with a collector for $20,000 and displaying the tape in an art gallery. How's that for an exposure of art as a commodifying institution?
I apologize if I haven’t been clear enough re my project. That was unintentional. In fact I wish we had more time in this workshop structure to describe each of our projects and ask each other questions. Now I’d like to ask you how you feel about your constructive feedback being used in my project, and if you would object to it being posted on the blog. Another alternative if that seems too public is I could post the anonymous constructive criticism in a more private space like my Facebook page and only give access to “friends,” ie my project collaborators and other literary colleagues interested in the project. Or if any of you didn’t want me to post your comments on Facebook either, that would be fine. Just let me know.
So to be clear, right now the poems I’ve brought to this class and my lit class are posted by themselves, with their barcodes. I have pulled the comments that came out of the classes off the blog. I’ve put them for now in a note on Facebook that is only accessible to my Facebook friends, but I can remove specific comments by specific individuals if need be.
I’d also of course feel very happy if any of you wanted to contribute to the reality poetry show with even more comments on the poems posted in the comments section on the blog. I put a call out that I particularly welcomed “asshole” contributions, given that if you know anything about the comment sections on poets’ blogs, they have always been seething pits of assholeness. That’s partly why I wanted to have a blog for this project, to draw the assholes out, and expose them a bit. But so far they’re laying low.
Anyway, I hope that clears things up a bit.