Saturday, December 25, 2004

Black Box: Poems without Authors

I've got a job interview at the MLA on Monday, and they want some ideas for things I might do with their creative writing program. Following is a proposal for a literary magazine I could run from Pacific Lutheran University. Anybody who is interested in collaborating on this project should write me

Prospectus for Black Box: Poems without Authors

Presently, American poetry is experiencing a kind of renaissance, fueled, like the American poetic modernism of the ‘twenties or ‘thirties, by small literary journals or web-based magazines, the publishing costs of which continue to fall. Many of these print dazzling, hyper-inventive poems by a continuous wavefront of emerging and established poets; and yet, at the same time these journals often suggest to the wide-minded reader a fragmented and cliquish literary world. Journals which publish poets with different aesthetics and poetics become scarcer and more beleaguered each year—even as the number of journals which claim, fallaciously, to confound such easy categories and build bridges grows. While there is indubitably a real value to journals and editors with a distinctive vision—to publications which choose to champion a particular kind of writer otherwise ignored, to do one thing and do it well—it is also perhaps the case that a good deal of excellent poetry does not get read by certain people by dint of the publication in which it does or does not appear. Whereas ten or twenty years ago, the oft-brandished terms “avant-garde,” “experimental,” “traditional” and “mainstream” signified the relationship of a David to a Goliath, this is no longer the case. In the words of poet Joshua Corey, the margins have become their own center, just as “mainstream” poets—called such by virtue of their more traditional approaches—think of themselves as increasingly marginalized. This occurs even as fascinating writers trouble such easy categories, and as savvier critics temper the ad hominem discourses which allow for them.

I, personally, know that there is a certain insidious voice within me (one that I vigorously combat) which prejudges and categorizes poets based upon the flimsiest of prepossesions, and disallows for the possibility of excellence within a poem of a certain style I deem either reactionarily mainstream or self-consciously experimental, even as I am often wonderfully surprised by how much I like a writer of the former or latter stripe. I like to imagine that were I to read these poems blindly—without looking at the name of the author or his/her list of accomplishments and publications—I could have a much more pure and unmediated contact with the poem. In fact, when I read for Seneca Review I make it a point to look at an author’s cover letter only after I’ve read the poems, as I don’t trust my biases.

Black Box, then, would publish poems without attribution, and without the standard contributor’s note. Perhaps we would have a cheat sheet—enrypted, somehow— for those who simply must know who wrote what (or what wrote whom). Perhaps, also, we could have an edifying contest in which readers were asked to try and match poems with particular true or fictitious biographical data. Which poet has been divorced once and married three times? Which one plays the clarinet? Which one lives in DUMBO, Brooklyn? Which one was the shooter on the grassy knoll? We would encourage pseudonymous submissions and collaborative poetry, as well as found poetry, or poetry that was imaginatively attributed (say to a dead person). In this way, we might better champion the work of emerging writers, giving them the opportunity to be read with as much care as one would read the work of a well-known poet. It would also allow already established writers to write a different kind of poem without offending their fans. Paradoxically, even as the magazine extinguishes the cult of the personality, it would allow for poets to write a confessional and autobiographical poem under the cover of pseudonymity or anonymity.

In theater, black box designates a bare, quadrilinear and unmarked ground from which the highest number of spatial combinations may arise. In aviation, a black box records the instrument and voice data from a plane so that, in the unfortunate event of an accident, investigators might reconstruct what happened. It is something one hopes need never be opened. Perhaps, by way of analogy, the black box might be where we would keep the names of the authors and their biographical data. Perhaps we will manage to avoid the perilous analogy between such a plane and the state of the United States, given its current bearings.

Depending on funding, the magazine could either be a print journal or web-based magazine. Were it a print journal (my preference), and were sufficient funding available, the actual artifact could be a black cube in which a square journal nested. We might collaborate with bookmakers and artists to produce a collectible objet d’art.

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