Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Ron Silliman must have Lied to Me, Dr Theune....

In an article in the new Pleiades magazine Dr Michael Theune , (MFA Iowa, MA Oxford, PHD U of Houston) entitled Missed Communications: Three New Anthologies the elegant professor has seen fit to criticize three anthologies that are placed within the Sillimanian Post Avant Genre idea and he reserves his most vituperative critique for The City Visible: Chicago Poetry for a New Century (Cracked Slab Books 2007) .

Dr Theune is a professor at Illinois Wesleyan University who is best known for Structure and Surprise: Engaging Poetic Turns from Teachers and Writers Collaborative which has been lauded by no less than Billy Collins and Ed Hirsch for his insights. I cannot imagine higher praise for a work…..

The thesis of Theune’s essay is that the division between Experimental Poetry and Mainstream poetry is a canard. He feels that this was set up by Poet Ron Silliman and really it is not important to engage in “Poetry Wars”. Of course it is clear from Theune’s tone that he thinks the entire history of poetry since Pound has been a big misunderstanding and he would like us all to “just get along” unless of course he is writing an essay where he feels free to engage is unfounded attacks of the character of people and presses to make his points about “freedom”.

Dr. Theune asserts through his examination of these three anthologies and his critique of blog posts from Silliman’s Blog, The Irascible Poet Blog which I write that those of us who are drawn to a certain aesthetic are elitists or worse bad editors ignoring the treasure trove of poetry out there. This is of course an interesting charge from a man with Dr Theune’s pedigree.

Dr Theune’s essay is well over 30 pages and I will let my fellow editors address his critiques of their anthologies. Some of Theune’s critiques of our anthology have real merit- it is true that we focused on a certain community of poets, writing in certain ways during a short period of time (2003-2005) in Chicago. We stated this up front and we also only published poets with a book as well and we focused on poets who were part of some of Chicago’s ‘experimental’ groups. It is also true that many of these poets are friends and it was that community of poets that concerned us. But he chose to quote from a blog post of mine in 2009 critiquing the state of poetry four years later this seems less than honest to me but of course what do I know??

Dr Theune begins his critique by telling us about all the poetic institutions that exist in Chicago such as the Poetry Foundation, The School of the Art Institute, Slam and Columbia College Chicago. The funny thing about Theune’s inclusion of these institutions is the fact that in Chicago “post Avant” is a distinct minority of poets and this was the community that was coming to flower in the early part of this decade that we wanted to highlight. Our objective was never to do a whole Chicago anthology but to highlight that community and all the groups highlighted do not support that community. We made that clear to our readers.

Also in terms of poetic infrastructure those who write regionally or who do spoken word poetry have a large and well funded infrastructure in Chicago while those who do experimental work do not have anything apart from a few small presses and a few reading series. None of our universities here apart from the U of Chicago have any stake in the line of poetry that begins with Pound and moves through Stein, Zukofsky, Duncan, Creeley to today’s experimental poets.
It was the growth of that community that interested us.

Dr Theune’s second critique is that the anthology is “A great deal messier” and he uses words like “tepid” and “opaque” to criticize the work chosen but of course the poetry he likes is mentioned in the review while the work he finds “tepid” or “opaque” is not mentioned. He must not have mentioned the other work as not to affect Thune’s future publication opportunities with anyone he might insult.

He also critiques our inclusion of some poets that have a “slam feel” but then earlier he critiqued the lack of diversity in the anthology, so which one is it??

Dr Theune?? Are you still there or are you back teaching class or is it time for sabbatical?

Then he gets to the real charge our press is really full of ‘Cronyism and Reactionary distain’. He accuses us of publishing our friends and people we are connected to from the same “Universities”. I for one am not an academic and I have been critical in essays of the University centered poetry scene as well. My co-editor William Allegrezza did not attend University with any of the anthologized poets.
It is true however that there are poets in our anthology that came out of the same places. There are Iowa and Oxford Graduates, the same places Dr Theune attended for example. There is a group that attended the Universities of Chicago, Brown and University of Illinois Chicago, all of these poets do come from different backgrounds but their aesthetic is similar there is some variety but cronyism was not our intent or the way we put the book together. You get the sense from Dr Theune’s essay that he is jealous for not being included in the Anthology?

A comment that I made about Slam that is can be vapid and uninteresting on my blog makes me ‘fearful and reactionary’ yet the fact is that Slam has become in Chicago and most other places performance art and is very commercial is not mentioned.
There are some Slam poets who are fine writers Kevin Coval who I have reviewed favorably comes to mind but anyone who has watched slam or read it will find that much of is formulaic and the same in tone and content and why do they need us to include them in an anthology when they have HBO and Russell Simmons to promote them?

Dr Theune continues his vituperative attack by accusing us of being deceitful and being people of privilege because we champion Experimental Work. This is rich from a man who has degrees from Oxford, Iowa and Houston and who teaches at an elite private school in central Illinois.
The realities are that all three presses and anthologies he attacked are run as shoe string non profits with most of the operating capital coming from small donors or from the editors pockets.
In the end Dr Theune chose to set forth his vision for what an anthology should be so why doesn’t he do his own anthology?
I do not know what vapid end Dr Theune had in mind with his essay? The three anthologies that he attacked all contain some of the finest experimental work in print today yet it is not good enough for him. In the end the anthologists put themselves on the line with a creation and a vision while Dr Theune just barked his critique from the sidelines like a yappy dog behind a large, locked door safe from life and engagement.


chippens said...

sour grapes

Murk Plectrum said...

Whatever else you might think about Theune, he's quite correct that the inane division of poetry into mainstream & "experimental" camps is a canard. He's hardly the only one to think so. If experimental poetry is produced from within the same institutions that provide us with bankers, as it is, it can hardly be "experimental" except in the most vapid stylistic sense. In fact most of the differences attributed to experimental poetry are stylistic—boringly so, in that they merely rehearse modernist gestures. Peter Bürger's Theory of the Avant-Garde is an enlightening read for anyone still deluded by this sad view of poetry.

- Michael Robbins

Michael Theune said...

Dear Mr. Bianchi,

You misconstrue my argument.

I will only mention a few examples of your misunderstanding in hopes of disentangling your take on my review from what I in fact argue.

In my review (“Missed Communication: Three New Anthologies,” in Pleiades (29.2)), I do indeed show that lines are being drawn for a new American poetry war, but this time, instead of, say, Language vs. New Formalism, it’s Elliptical/Hybrid poetry vs. Mainstream/Plainspoken/Ultra-Talk poetry. However, I do not in any way come down on one side or another of this distinction; rather, I think the distinction generally unhelpful, and so I try to problematize it.

I’m critical of the editing in all three of the anthologies I review—one of which is NOT Elliptical/Hybrid, but rather the more mainstream, plainspoken “Ultra-Talk” issue of TriQuarterly (a kind of anthology). (So, in fact, you’re wrong when you write that “[the] three anthologies that [I attack] all contain some of the finest experimental writing…”) But let me be clear regarding what I’m critical of: NOT all the poems in each anthology (I note that I like many of the poems in each, including The City Visible—of which, I state: “In The City Visible, one is introduced to a great deal of excellent post-avant work by over 50 poets…”), but rather the tiresome critical apparatuses that prop up these collections.

I’m not the only one who thinks that the distinction that pits Hybrid vs. Ultra-Talk is tiresome; one of the big points of my review is to make clear that the various editors, who try to use the distinction as a rationale for their collections (essentially: “this anthology represents *this* kind of poetry and not *that*”), do not either: I show that the distinction does not actually hold up when one inspects the work anthologized.

For example (as I note in my review), even though in your introduction to The City Visible you state that you’ve collected poems that are written “on the edge—experimental, multilingual, internationally infused writing” and that you’ve not included slam, you include a number of poems that are very plainspoken, even Quietist, and you include a few poems that clearly make use of poetic techniques deployed in slam (foremost among them: Johanny Vazquez Paz’s “Our Revolution”). Such editing seems to me at least careless, and perhaps even a bit misleading—at least you certainly are more diplomatic in your treatment of slam in the introduction to The City Visible than you tend to be on your blog.

My big complaint about The City Visible is that—especially considering the diversity already touched on in the anthology and the fact that many (including you yourself (on your blog post of 10/23/08, and elsewhere)) have complained about the tendency of presses and poets to publish, as you say, “narrow poetry by their friends”—you (and Allegreeza) really could have made a new kind of anthology, one that really challenged the critical status quo instead of, in large part, playing right into it. In fact, to my thinking, that’s the kind of work I expect from small presses: the offer of a true alternative, a new approach. The City Visible offers plenty of good poems to read, but it does not give anyone interested in contemporary American poetry any kind of new approach—that’s what my review critiqued.

We clearly don’t agree on what your anthology accomplishes, Mr. Bianchi—just as we don’t agree on the nature of my review’s claims and assessments. I simply hope that by spelling out the discrepancy between your reading of my review and my own understanding of my argument those interested might be encouraged to read the review itself and make their own determinations.

Michael Theune

Raymond Bianchi said...

A comment: I wanted in my post to illicit a conversation. Dr Theune has responded well and while we will continue to agree to disagree his opinions and critiques are valid and have real merit.

I dont happen to agree with him and I think some of his arguments are frankly self serving but that is the nature of critique and it is welcomed...

Anonymous said...

Mr. Bianchi--

I recognize that yours is a blog, and furthermore that the post you made was meant to be a rant. All the same, there's something to be said for using the spellchecker before you hit the 'post' button. It lends a weight to one's arguments and makes one sound less incoherent and emotional.

As a former student of Dr. Theune's, I realize that my opinions have little weight here. However, I wish to make one point. Aside from making disparaging remarks about Theune, your main point seems to be a sort of indignation over his ability to question the delineation and demarcation between slam and oulipo and mainstream and experimental/avant-garde poetry. As a budding critic of poetry and a poet myself, I find this line in the sand bothersome and absurd to deal with. It seems to me to be foolishness to attempt to separate poetry and poets, when we could all benefit from cross-pollination, as it were. In this new age, such a distinction and insistence upon maintaining it as the status quo seems both stultifying and smacks of a resistance to change, which is a shame, as poetry must be a living, breathing, ever-evolving art in order for it to survive--experimental or not.

Anonymous said...