3.02.2005

Ben Marcus from a poet's perspective

As one of the few poets on the ol' Earth Goat I feel that I should have entered into this conversation before. But, of course, a combo of being busy and being lazy has stopped me from doing so.

Although I read Marcus's ¨The Age of Wire and String¨some time ago I would like to chime in on the positive side. I found the book to be interesting not only from the language side of things, but also from the experimental side of things. It would be refreshing to have a director whose work seems to span both the prose and poetic sensibilities. For my years at Iowa I always felt as if the workshop didn't quite care about 50% of its students. One example of this came when our former director mentioned every book published on the prose side of things off the top of his head but couldn't name one book that had been published by a poet over the course of the last five years. I feel that someone like Marcus could change this.

The work of his that I read lends itself to a stimulating conversation between prose and poetry. This is the type of literary experimentation and fervor that the workshop could use. Poets working with fiction writers on more than the basketball courts or pitchers of beer would be a boon for the Workshop and for the work itself. I know that the poets looked towards the visual artists for collaberative partners. I think it would be better if the poets and fiction writers could have looked to each other more. I hope that Marcus could lead to that sort of community. We have much to share with each other.

Cheers-
Charlemagne

21 comments:

dunkeys said...

Sup, C. It sounds like the main reason you want a more poetry-friendly director is that FC rarely gave poets props in public. I've heard that complaint before, and I wonder if anyone ever said to him, "Would you mind mentioning recent poetry books sometime?"

Still, having to ask is demeaning, so your point is fair. But poetry is otherwise highly valued at the WW, don't you think? To take nothing away from the fiction faculty, the poetry faculty is AWESOME -- ambitious, prodigious, involved. Sumbuddy musta hired 'em.

And while more extensive aesthetic dialogue between fiction writers and poets would be interesting, it's not like you can MAKE fiction writers study poetry/poets study fiction (and remember, the seminars are open to everyone). But imagine ______ trying to write a novel! She'd be absolutely bitter! Or ______ being forced to study enjambment? His head would explode.

It'd also be hard to 'strongly suggest' to the faculty that they "team-teach" a course that covers both genres. Maybe one day an ambitious faculty member (I doubt a director would have the time to teach a course that blends the two) who wants to have a seminar that looks at the type of fiction Marcus writes, or the poetry of someone like Edson or Forche, will do just that (and regardless of his candidacy for the directorship, BM might be an awesome faculty member).

I guess my point is that it seems difficult and maybe ultimately ineffective to impose your conversation institutionally, especially at a studio program ("you WILL learn about poetry, proser!"). Who knows.

(There's something for your conversation, no?)

kclou said...

I think requiring fiction students to take a poetry workshop and vice versa is a bad idea. I think plenty of students would benefit greatly from working in another genre, and I think plenty would consider it a waste of time.

I wish the seminars were taken more seriously, because I think this is the place for cross pollination. I loved that I was able to take a poetry seminar with Robert Hass, who is one of my favorite poets, and I remember illuminating conversations with Galvin and Young, too, which I was very grateful for at the time. I even had to write and present poems for the Hass course.

But I also remember almost all the seminars as being inconsistently attended affairs with ambiguous requirements and spotty participation. I see no convincing reason why each student can't take one workshop and at least one, if not two, seminars in earnest. And fault lies in both directions. The fault is cyclical: teachers don't take them as seriously as they should, which means students don't take them as seriously as the should, which means, etc. etc.

I'm sympathetic to the King of Franks's desire for more poetry love from the top. I think a director who demanded REAL seminars--and a director ought to be able to do as much--could boost poet-fiction morale, quite a bit.

To end a long post, I think it's worth noting that I got drunk with poets as often as fiction writers, and read a lot of great books of poetry because of it. In my two years there, I thought the interaction was pretty good.

Charlemagne said...

Yes yes, goats. I do agree with you on many of the points that you have posted. One of the things that I loved about the workshop is its laissez-faire attitude. If people want to go to seminar they can. If they don't, well all the more power to them. I know that I ditched a variety of seminars for a variety of reasons. We are all adults, all unundergraduates, and should be able to make those decisions ourselves. I believe that workshops should be mandatory, but then again that is what the program is named. It is the WW not the Iowa Writer's Seminar.

So, getting folks to cross pollinate is a pipe dream. Most of the great friendships and cross pollination did happen at George's or Foxhead, I do agree. But I believe that the cross pollination only happened in our small group of friends. We were non-partisian from the start, and to our benefit. I think it all made us richer writers.

I don't mean to advocate anyone as some sort of messiah for the program. In many ways I don't think the program needs a messiah. It isn't Czarist Russia for Trotsky's sake.

But Ben Marcus on the fiction staff could lead to a breath of fresh air, perhaps a discussion even more between the two faculties. Yes, someone did have to hire the current, varied, and most excellent poetry staff. But I think that a lot of that has to do with past directors. Jim has been teaching at Iowa for a long time and Dean has been around for a good half decade as well. With the more current hires and invites I am pretty certain that those guys have the majority of the input in the process. (Just like how the fiction profs should have the input on a fiction hire.)

I guess what bothers me is that both sides should have equal input for a director. Who better to be a director then someone whose style seems to mesh both poetry and fiction. Why is it that it is a foregone conclusion that a fiction writer should be the director of the workshop? I think I know the answer to this, but it seems unfair to just bring in fiction writers for the interviews.

At least for me, with Ben Marcus, I know that I am maybe getting someone who although is a fiction writer is also interested in the world of poetry and the kind of experimentation that I personally find vital to moving the art forward.

Sad Iowa was sold to the Yanks in the Louisiana Purchase,

Charlemagne

Grendel said...
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Grendel said...
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Grendel said...

(I see Charlemagne has posted a comment that may make mine redundant, but I'll post it anyhow.)

I think part of the problem is just that fiction and poetry are so different, and the more serious you become about learning the craft of one, the further away the other seems. Of course, prosers should be poetic, and poets should employ narrative and have speakers that are characters (I guess, I wouldn't really know), but my God, to me the two forms feel about as different as dentistry and gynecology.

But in med school (to really strain that metaphor) surely you learn at least the rudiments of both, or at least which is the canine, which is the ... no, I shall resist that. And that's one thing that surprised me at Iowa. They had me teaching undergrads poetry! In my case at least, it was like asking a sea horse to teach drivers' ed. Of course I was able to fake it, because I was far enough along in general literary interest to be ahead of any one of those youngsters majoring in nursing or business, but I didn't like the feeling of faking it. I grazed the electric fence surrounding my knowledge repeatedly in front of students.

It led me to wish there was a kind of required "Basics Seminar" for the first semester that went through the lingo and jargon of both forms, at the very least, and pointed out good stuff for further reading. I know they gave us those fat xeroxed handouts, and those were good, actually, once I dug through them (Mark Levine's 90-page intro to poetry was a gem I thought), but to have just the juiciest, most critical parts of that material presented to me by a seminar teacher would have been a lot better. Yet I still might ditch the seminar and would want the right to.

I'm reading Marcus's Notable American Women now. I'm not very far along because I've been busy catching up post-flu, but so far it's very funny and very strange. I can see how a poet would be drawn to it. Its concerns are more about POV and language than plot and character, but that may be grossly premature to say at this point. Anyway, when I finish maybe I'll post something. Anybody George Saunders says is "a genius, one of the most daring, funny, morally engaged and brilliant writers, someone whose work truly makes a difference in the world" is someone worthy of paying special attention to.

I do feel kind of bad for poets (are they more like gynecologists or dentists?) in this whole thing. I mean, no one has even questioned the fact that all the director candidates are prosers. Why not alternate? Is it just quietly assumed that because fiction is consumed by a lot more people and makes 99% of the money, that the program director has to be a producer of it?

Grendel said...
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Charlemagne said...

Not a problem, Grendal. I assumed that you were being experimental with your blog. Or perhaps delving into an interaction with Warhol. Or perhaps your hand was having a seizure and you couldn't disengage the mouse.

I vote that Warhol inhabited your body.

Chaz

kclou said...

Grendel, you're so vain. I bet you think this thread is about you. Don't you. DON'T YOU!

I wonder if Galvin, or any poet, was ever seriously considered for the director position. At UVa, where I did my undergrad, the program has been directed by a poet for some time, even with well known fiction writers like John Casey and Ann Beattie on staff. Virginia doesn't have the history Iowa has, but it's a competitive program with a large faculty.

As for the Saunders, have any of you read his piece in this month's _Harpers_? It's as though he wrote the thing in response to one of the lengthier debates we had about Saunders, among others, recently. Check it out. I don't think it really succeeds, but I found it an interesting read.

Teddy Mo Meddy said...

Of course Saunders was inspired by the Goats! You guys are the free masons of literature.

ian said...

We eat the Free Masons for breakfast, mofo. Beware our wrath.

Grendel said...
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Grendel said...

For lunch we dine on Bilderbergers, and as a midafternoon snack we put out a bowl of Tri-Lateral Commission members and sip from the remnants of the BCCI bank. Toward evening, we often enjoy an appetizer of FEMA's black helicopters. For dinner, we meet Adam Weishaupt at the north gate of Area 51, head down to the casino under Building C, gnosh on the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, and later retire to leather chairs at the Council on Foreign Relations, where we methodically swallow Skulls and Bones. After all that, we crap the World Bank.

Grendel said...
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Charlemagne said...

Gnosh on gnostic hamburgers...

Seriouisly, a poet once rebuked her husband at George's because he was having a hamburger and the hamburger was "gnostic." Those were damn good hamburgers, but in relation to mystical Christians with apocryphal texts? Wow, it was the highest praise that could be levied on food. I believ that it should be the bar's motto.

dunkeys said...

That's just the demiurge talking through you again. ALL food is arguably gnostic, isn't it?

(Is it worth noting that the poet who wanted the quarter-pound of gnostic grease used to be the poet laureate?)

Nate said...

Cheers for the valiant Charlemagne's notion that a director with (gasp!) a nontraditional, even experimental and poetic sensibility might be a welcomed change for the workshop... During my time in the program it really did feel like the two factions were two factions, like our aesthetic concerns weren't even in the same universe. It's weird. We're all chums, some of us even love each other. In the Cinema and Comp Lit Dept. the film students, translation students and lit. students have more cross-influence, more common talking points, and we're not even working in the same mediums! It seems there's more to learn from each other than the program pushes for.

Charlemagne said...

Yup, the main point isn't that poets and fiction writers are taking each others workshops. It is that more of a dialogue can be opened up. Ben Marcus seems like a good person to do this. He calls his book The Age of Wire and String stories, but they can be easily called prose poems as well.