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Jacket 15 — December 2001   |   # 15  Contents   |   Homepage   |   Catalog   |

Craig Dworkin and Michel Delville

The Rain in Spain

“Transgressing Boundaries and Strategies of Renewal in American Poetry,” May 18-20, 2000, Universidad de Salamanca.

This piece is 2,500 words or about six printed pages long.

THE SALAMANCA CONFERENCE began with an evening dinner at the Colegio Arzobispo Fonseca, a magnificent 16th-century monastery, graced with an impressive Plateresque facade and replete with storks nesting on its tile roofs. As the stones began to cool beneath the courtyard’s renaissance colonnade, old friends were reunited, new friendships begun, and the exceptionally relaxed and friendly tone of the conference was set by toasts from its two principal organizers: Maria Eugenia Díaz and Viorica Patea.
    The conference itself was well attended, with as many as eighty participants and students at a single panel, and it drew interest even from beyond the university; scholar and translator Odile Cisneros, for instance, traveled all the way from Madrid to attend an afternoon’s session. Those who came heard such a variety of authors and issues addressed that they might well have concluded justice was done to conference’s main objective: to analyze the permutations of modernism and postmodernism, and to examine the most recent trends and debates surrounding “innovative” and formally “transgressive” American poetry.
    Moreover, most of those papers, lectures, and poetry readings were excellent, and the dialogue between a spectrum of styles and ideologies made the Salamanca gathering an important event — one that itself transgressed the boundaries that have allegedly separated the different “camps” of American poetry and poetics. For just one index, readers included poets as diverse as Steve McCaffery, Aldon Nielsen, Karen Mac Cormack, Bob Perelman, Joan Retallack, Loss Glazier and Annie Finch. And the topics of critical papers ranged from the “problematics of Surrealist women artists” (Ernesto Suárez Toste) and “form and identity in Language poetry and Asian American poetry” (Timothy Yu) to “cultural poetics and the problem of identity” in recent anthologies of US poetry (Manuel Brito).
    For many of us, the city itself was an instructive plenary participant; Salamanca offered the opportunity to submerge oneself in the past. From the gardens terraced atop the fortified walls of the old city one could see first-hand the setting of the first picaresque; far below, in the lower levels of the cathedral, one might trace the latticed moorish designs on the oldest organ in the world, or — in an adjacent cell — witness the spot where doctoral candidates at one of the oldest universities in Europe had to sweat out the night before their exams alone in the dark of the crypts, their feet pressed against the carved sarcophagal feet of one of their elders. (Academic rituals, it seems, haven’t changed much over the centuries). Failures had to try and slink from the church unnoticed; successful new professors had to then brave a bull fight, with winners writing their names on the walls of the university in fresh blood. (Academic rituals, it seems...).
    Even a short stroll to one of the sidewalk cafés that line the expansive but perfectly proportioned 18th century Plaza Mayor took one through the labyrinthine streets of the old city and on a survey of architectural styles: from the Romanesque and Gothic to the Plateresque, including the famed Casa de las Conchas (House of Shells), and from the Baroque and Neoclassical to the stark and striking modernism of the city museum.
    On the way back from a late lunch, pausing outside the conference building to admire the façade’s frenzy of intricately filigreed relief, one could — for good luck — take part in the student tradition of trying to find the frog hidden among the carnival of ornaments before stepping into the zaguán of the University’s Edificio Antiguo (Old Building).

PLENARY SESSIONS were held in the Aula Unamuno, a regal fifteenth-century lecture hall lined with high-backed, hard-wood pews and named after the famous essayist-philosopher-poet who was also the Rector of the University of Salamanca in the early years of the XXth century.
    Aided by an attentive host of student ushers, including the extraordinarily knowledgeable Aida Márquez, the conference ran smoothly despite nine plenary lectures and more than 40 papers organized in parallel sessions and all delivered in the space of only three days. Even the most dutiful participants could not claim to have attended all. Even those who neglected the Salamancan nightlife, which only picks up well after midnight and slows only with dawn.
    But we saw many, among them the morning’s series of plenary addresses, which were devoted to modernist poetics. After a lecture by Gudrun Grabher, who spoke about haiku and the genre’s scepticism towards language in Modernist American poetry, Barry Ahearn discussed the linguistic boundaries of Pound’s Cathay.
    Next, Marjorie Perloff’s “Plus ça change? Avant-Garde Eliot and the New Poetics” opened the first part of a critical dialogue with Charles Altieri, whose own paper — delivered the next day — also concentrated on Eliot. Marjorie’s paper reminded us of the relation of contemporary experimental poetries to early Modernism. It took us from Thomas Hardy and Edward Arlington Robinson to Ezra Pound and Eliot himself and concentrated on how the latter’s experience of WWI led him to a darker, less utopian form of Modernism. One of the strongest moments of her talk was a subtle analysis of the rhythm patterns and stylistic shifts at work in the now too familiar “Prufrock,” and her paper as a whole worked to “make strange” a poet whom other critics of modernism have tried to render familiar and conservative and banal.

THE AFTERNOON’S PROGRAMME consisted of two series of parallel sessions. The first one, still on Modernist poetics, featured Isabelle Alfandary on “Poetry as “Ungrammar” in the works of E. E. Cummings, followed by Ian Copestake, who discussed Williams’s continued fascination with aspects of the ideal of perfection in the context of the poet’s lifelong respect for his parents, and the values of Unitarianism.
    The second panel, entitled “Feminine Voices,” featured Juani Guerra on Lyn Hejinian, Anne Dewey on Susan Howe and an excellent paper by Astrid Franke, who surprised everyone by declaring that she wanted to study Phillis Wheatley in Salamanca precisely because she was neither transgressing any boundaries nor inventing any strategies of renewal. With a more serious turn, Astrid’s talk went on to successfully enumerate the ways in which Wheatley resorted to imitation in order to undermine neoclassical conventions from within.
    The first panel of the second session, chaired by Maria Eugenia Díaz, dealt with the problem of identity in a cultural perspective, with contributions from Aldon Lynn Nielsen (“Race and Poetics from the Future Anterior”), Timothy Yu (“Form and Identity in Language Poetry and Asian American Poetry”) and Graça Capinha on Language poetry and Portuguese immigrants’ poetry.

THE FRIDAY SESSIONS opened with a series of four plenaries devoted to Philip Levine’s “radical imagination” (Felix Martin) and Emerson’s epistemologies and orientalism (Manju Jain). Charles Altieri presented a cogent and provocative excursus on “Eliot’s version of emotion,” and the way in which Eliot’s language of value has been turned against him; Charlie argued that a sophisticated reading of emotional densities in Eliot’s work could rehabilitate the vitality of a once radical poet who has now come to be read and taught as a tepid and effete classicist.
    Finally, Antoine Cazé delivered an excellent lecture on “conceptual lyricism”; building upon a variety of American and Continental sources — including Jean-Michel Maulpoix’s seminal essay, “The Fourth Person Singular” (we refer readers to the printed version included in Dominique Rabaté’s excellent collection, Figures du sujet lyrique, recently published by the Presses Universitaires de France) — Antoine’s contribution offered a very interesting survey of current theories about the lyric and suggested that new ways to make sense of the history of American poetry can be derived from the recognition that the “abstract constructions of the self” one encounters in numerous recent experimental works can only be accounted for by means of new critical models that transcend conventional subject/object boundaries.
    (At lunchtime, Antoine also treated us to the new issue of the French journal Sources [], which contains an illuminating interview with Karen Mac Cormack and Steve McCaffery, conducted by email a few months before the conference.)
    The plenary lectures were followed by a lavish reception at a nearby hotel, where the conference participants were introduced to a seemingly endless variety of local specialties and tapas, not to mention the ever delicious vinos de la Sierra.

THE AFTERNOON PANELS were mainly devoted to postmodern and avant-gardist poetry. The session on “Postmodernist Poetics”, chaired by Marjorie Perloff, opened with Steve McCaffery’s paper on Jackson Mac Low which invited us to contemplate the infinite movement of paragrammatic flows of Words nd Ends from Ez, taking us from Mac Low to Starobinski, from Arakawa and Gins to Eco and Saussure — and then back to Mac Low with Steve’s usual witz, erudition, theoretical sophistication.
    Bob Perelman’s short talk on “Poems and Lemons,” focused specifically on the work of Jack Spicer, and more generally on the relationship between poetry and the world of objects. Its title was inspired by a letter of Spicer to Lorca in which the poet declares that he “would like to make poems out of real objects. The lemon to be a lemon that the reader could cut or squeeze or taste.” Craig Dworkin’s paper, ironically entitled “To Destroy Language”, attempted to demonstrate that even the most asyntactic and “areferential”, zaum-like works (such as David Melnick’s Pcoet, Ron Silliman’s “Ott,” and Peter Inman’s Platin) are liable to be read through an interpretive grid that centers on the possible origins of the words that are “disfigured” and made strange by those writers.
    Karen Mac Cormack’s “Mutual Labyrinth: A Proposal of Exchange” concentrated on the influence of visual art on contemporary North American writing by women poets. A significant part of Karen’s talk was devoted to the collaborations of Arakawa and Madeline Gins which she explored as so many ways of “activating” architecture poetically and of extending the writing and reading of poetry by a radical approach to architecture and perception. Unfortunately, the time allotted prevented Karen from developing the link between experimental writing/reading strategies and the medieval approach to reading, whereby readers do not merely receive information wholesale, but rather “choose” information through a text. One can only look forward to the published version of Karen’s paper, which will expand upon the evolution of the act of reading throughout the centuries and the relevance of this evolution to the contemporary notions of the “productive” reader and the “open” text.
    The second panel on postmodernist poetics was chaired by the inimitable Esteban Pujals, who devoted his talk to an exploration of the “utopian horizons” of American poetry, discussing the status of authorship in the legendary “Legend” (1980), a work collectively written by Bruce Andrews, Charles Bernstein, Ray Di Palma, Steve McCaffery and Ron Silliman in 1980.
    Tomoyuki Iino spoke about the use of “words as speculation” in the works of Paul Auster and John Ashbery. Tomoyuki’s talk argued that Auster and Ashbery, for all their apparent differences, both contributed to redefining the poetry of the seventies through their radical view of language.
    One of the highlights of this panel was Ming-Qian Ma’s presentation which centered on textual manifestation of the poetics of pataphysics in contemporary Canadian avant-garde poetry, and the works of poets Steve McCaffery, Christian Bök, and Christopher Dewdney, in particular. Salvador Rodríguez Nuero’s talk returned to Auster, and José Rodríguez Herrera took on the challenge of addressing head-on one of the touchstones of the conference: the status of the self in postmodernism.
    In another of the conference’s highlights, Ursula Nobis gave a talk on two of the three ‘steins (Charles and Ludwig, that is). Simultaneously sharp and casually good natured, Ursula’s paper linked the philosopher and the philosophy student through the concept of “seeing as.”
    Duck, or rabbit? Duck and cover: the day’s final panel included, among other speakers, Annie Finch’s provocative but questionable attempt to recuperate the figure of the “poetess” with a paper on “sentimentality as a strategy of poetic renewal”.

THE CONFERENCE ENDED on Saturday afternoon, after a last series of plenaries, followed by a poetry reading, and all capped by Majorie Perloff’s and Charles Altieri’s improvised but considered concluding remarks. Zhaoming Qian’s paper, illustrated with a dozen slides, carefully followed Marianne Moore’s transactions with Chinese ceramic art in “Nine Nectarines”; he not only provided detailed close readings of different versions of the poem, but he was also able to make a thorough examination of the Chinese plates that served as Moore’s model. Like Zhaoming Qian and Bob Perelman, Claude Rawson also dealt with the relationship between poems and things. Taking the Romantic image of the tree as his test case, with corroboration from descriptions of the hearth, Claude proceeded — in a magisterial lecture that reminded everyone of the charms of an academic style now all but lost — to examine how Stevens and Yeats differ from other poets in the Symbolist tradition.
    Michel Delville, who also took the recent poetico-architectural research of Madeline Gins and Arakawa as the subject of his talk, traced the ways in which their “reversible destiny sites” argue for a radical redefinition of what constitutes the self and its experience of time and space, and in which new spaces might be grounded in the necessity of theorizing the subject as body, rather than just as a model of interiority. The paper sparked more discussion and argument than most, with supporters of “reversible destiny” suddenly finding themselves opposed to a camp of critics and poets more resistant to the project. Whereas McCaffery, Mac Cormack and Delville remained convinced that the collaborations of Gins and Arakawa “point to a potentially vital exchange between poetry and innovative architectural practice” (Karen Mac Cormack), others complained that their work “lacked irony” (Charles Altieri), raised the relevance of the Situationists’ radical architectural theories (Dworkin), or voiced reservations about the artists’ suggestion that architecture should encourage and enable new explorations of perception, instead of merely subscribing to the Vitruvian ideals of permanence, comfort and harmony.
    Appropriately enough, Marjorie Perloff’s concluding remarks brought this discussion to a close by reiterating her call for a more committed and more fully-developed form of criticism, one that would enable poets from the same camp to really “put themselves on the line” and say what they reallythink of each other. Urging those poets to write more sustained critical responses to one another’s work, Marjorie also encouraged poets and critics alike to pay more attention to the poetry and criticism produced in countries other than the United States. Marjorie’s words were inspired by the successes of the Salamanca conference, made possible by Maria Eugenia Diaz’s innovative and insightful choices for an event that brought together writers from a dozen countries. Marjorie reminds one of the importance not only of such international gatherings, but of the need to find new ways of improving the discourse about poetry by acknowledging and building upon the diversity of approaches and interests that characterized this conference in particular, and which has in general characterized the recent history of American poetry and poetics.
    The frog, by the way, crouches on a skull in the lower right. Among the sandstone, wrought-iron, and sun of the city, it is a symbol of sin.

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