Joshua Clover is author of six books including poetry, cultural history, and political theory; he’s been translated into ten languages. His most recent books are the poetry collection Red Epic (Commune Editions 2015) and Riot.Strike.Riot: The New Era of Uprisings (Verso 2016), a political economy of insurrection and renarration of capital’s history. He is a Professor of English and Comparative Literature at UC Davis and edits Studies in Revolution and Literature for Palgrave Macmillan. He is a cofounder of Commune Editions.
Kristina Marie Darling: I’ve always admired the way your poems blur the boundaries between creative and critical modes of writing. What unique artistic resources does poetry afford for thinking through what one might otherwise envision as purely scholarly questions?
Joshua Clover: I am not sure that there are unique artistic resources or purely scholarly questions. There is a long history to this idea, heart and mind, division of labor. It doesn’t seem quite right to me, to my own experiences. It feels to me like the history of poetry is the history of discovering that the categories that delimit poetry at any given time don’t work. But maybe the categories are necessary? Someone has to say “poetry is this,” so that someone can do the poetic thing, which is to overcome those limits. Poetics is poetry’s long war on poetry.
I think this is one very good thing you can say about poetry; it has historically been better at getting over itself and expanding its range of styles and its domains of inquiry than has been academic scholarship. Like, poetry is admirable in so far as it is not unique, not pure, not discrete. Contrarily, it’s less admirable with every purification. I think particularly of the vision by which a large part of the European avant-garde was understood to be a purifying project, burning off the extraneous in search of the true inner kernel of aesthetics — even as it was borrowing ceaselessly from non-European traditions and pretending it wasn’t.
It’s also worth remembering that poetry begins with knowledge production and preservation. I love Sappho but I also love Virgil. They’re my two favorite poets. Virgil’s georgics are treatises on things like, you know, beekeeping and how to do it. Every time I put honey in my yogurt I thank poetry. People are still making amazing georgics; that’s what Di Prima’s Revolutionary Letters are.
But I get why this feels like a pressing question now. There is a lot of anxiety about the role of the academy in poetry, and thus of scholarship (though these are not the same). This is true in part because US poetry is such a small and entangled sector that the support of a few leading academic critics and substantial syllabus placement can have a disproportionate impact on what poetry is valued, preserved, canonized. Moreover, just as US poetry was being drawn into writing programs via the academy’s enclosure of older poetic commons, and concomitantly the academy was becoming the absolute arbiter of poetic value, there was a great burst of brilliant scholarly attention to poetry and poetics — poststructuralist criticism really valued language as language, Jakobson’s “poetic function.” But this has largely faded. Poststructuralism has left behind some noisome idealisms in the world of theory, but even as we seem to have reached peak MFA and CW programs are entering decline, the English and CompLit departments are also turning away from this particular valorization of poetry. So poetry’s relation to the scholarly domain is at once widely entangled but attenuated. It’s a structural problem, even for people who abjure the academy. That’s the ecology. There is a real desire for new ways to think about the relationship; also to break the ties altogether. I think the recent efflorescence of poetic engagement, in various ways, with practical politics is part of this long wave — not a consequence, more of a dialectically paired development.
OK, that was the long answer. Here’s the short, technical answer you probably wanted. I think that among the arts one thing poetry is good at is attuning the time axis and the space axis, the aspects of change and of arrangement — and of transforming one into the other. Consequently it’s good at getting us to experience that transformation. Since all economic life is based in the exchange of time for space and vice versa, I think that’s interesting and powerful.
KMD: Your poems frequently level the hierarchies that we tend to impose upon different types of language. For example, in “An Archive of Confessions, A Genealogy of Confessions,” we encounter conventionally poetic diction alongside the rhetoric of surveillance and the remnants of continental philosophy. Here, our notions of value as they apply to language are challenged, interrogated through juxtaposition and skillful shifts in register. In your assessment, can these kinds of subtle stylistic choices be politically charged?
JC: Well, everything’s politically charged (which is very different from saying everything’s politically efficacious). And you’re right that the charge often comes from the relationship among the parts rather than from any particular assertion. The relation among the parts is perhaps the simplest definition of aesthetics; it is nice to know that aesthetics is in that regard always an allegory for the social existence of humans in “the medley of their innumerable interrelations,” as Baudelaire said. But that doesn’t guarantee it is a clear allegory, or an interesting allegory, or a useful allegory.
KMD: Could you say more about the relationship between writing and activism in your practice? Relatedly, what social justice is possible when working exclusively in the realm of art, and what greater good (if any) would you say is impossible when occupying a purely creative or imaginative space?
JC: I find this question always tempts me toward bad faith answers, where I discover that the thing I love to do and moreover basically get paid to do — poetry — is also part of the making of justice. Beware of anyone who discovers this about their vocation! So if you are generous you will let me refuse that.
I think poetry can move. But if poetry has any truth content, and I think it does, it is because it is a true expression of the situation from which it arises. The real situation is the basis of poetic truth. And so the desire for revolutionary art begins with making revolution. I think that if people want to change the world they should set out to change the world in concert with other people, in the streets. And then really not worry about whether their art is part of that. Maybe it is, but this is not something I want to be sure about. It’s not a burden I think art should bear.
I’m not sure it’s a burden we should bear either, the one that comes with the ponderous image of oneself as an artist. I hope never to start a day or a sentence with, “As a poet...” and have that constrain the possible conclusions about what to do next. We’re just people, we have to do people stuff. When your kid is sick and you’re trying to figure out what to do, you don’t say, “As a poet...”; same with political struggle.
KMD: What advice do you have for poets who are interested in writing politics, or, similarly, exploring the relationship between their artistic practice and their roles as citizens?
JC: A friend of mine said that the only thing that makes her less afraid of dying is the thought that there will be a revolution in her lifetime. She might be right (this was the occasion for the poem “Transistor”). Certainly the legitimacy of liberal democratic citizenship is dissolving day by day, even for those whom it has served well. This is the situation; this is not to say that the assured collapse of the centrist compact will open onto something better. What to do in the face of this? Recently what helped me most was rereading Fanon. He has a great account of the development of literature that happens in advance of political confrontation, revolution. His meditation concludes, “The poet ought, however, to understand that nothing can replace the reasoned, irrevocable taking up of arms on the people’s side.”
KMD: Could you speak about your work as a curator and how it informs your creative practice? What has editing, and hosting a conversation among other practitioners, opened up within your own thinking and writing?
JC: Well, it’s done a good job of asking the kinds of questions you’ve raised here, in somewhat different terms. Our press has an explicitly political remit. So we have to confront, as a practical matter, that set of irresolvable questions about aesthetics and politics, whether good politics necessarily makes good art (nope), whether good art can transcend bad politics (I personally think it can, but not for us regarding what we want the press to do).
Among other things, having to sit inside this question, to think about our publishing future, I have been drawn to the past. I’ve been revisiting the “poetry wars” of the seventies and eighties — also in part because my friend Tim Kreiner has written a brilliant history and theorization of that period. This is a drama that extends in both directions: backward to the debates on politics and aesthetics in the earlier twentieth century; and forwards to the present, where these questions seem reactivated in the North American poetry scene, notably in the debacle of conceptual poetry that peaked with Kenny Goldsmith and Vanessa Place.
I think this revisitation of US poetry from the period 1965-75 has changed my own practice. When I was 25, I was persuaded toward the formalist position that poetry’s potential intervention was based in a set of experimentations with language and with referentiality — in no small part because almost all my teachers were white and most of them sympathetic to avant-garderie. I mean, the US poetics scene is not as regimented at the Cambridge/Sussex line in the UK with its fifty shades of Adorno, but if you look at the ambient ideologies of the prestigious programs, it’s slanted. I tumbled down that slope. Since then I have been increasingly drawn toward other moments in the long debate, toward authors like Baraka and Di Prima and Brooks and Sanchez. It’s been an uphill climb against my own formation. In this part of my life I am interested in the poetry that was trying to find an orientation and a meaning in the context of social mobilizations. The thing rage most wants is context. Otherwise it destroys you.
KMD: What are you currently working on? What can readers look forward to?
JC: Those might be two different questions! I keep saying I am writing a book-length poem about Chaka Khan. This might turn out to be the case. In Xanadu did Chaka Khan a stately pleasure dome decree. If it happens, it will probably only feature Chaka for a few pages. It’s more interested in tracing the ways that the lives of some artists I like intersect with political struggle, which is a different matter from the content of their art. That story about LeRoi Jones and Diane Di Prima delivering hand grenades.
The book is, I think, about potential, about what hasn’t happened yet. I keep thinking about that vine of the Shmoney Dance, six seconds of anarchic black joy. There’s that moment when Bobby Shmurda tosses his hat into the air and it never comes down. There are the particulars of the moment, the song, the black community it organizes, the momentary and foreclosed delight in that dance, its emancipation within bondage. And then there are the viewers, waiting on that hat, on its return to earth.
The video keeps looping, keeps repeating, the hat goes up, it never comes down. It seems to have vanished while we replay the same scene over and over. That’s the horror of the present, its persistence, its deadly and empty repetition. But also the hovering possibility. Sooner or later everything falls. The hat will come back down. The loop will break, and it’s on.
Kristina Marie Darling is the author of twenty-seven books of poetry, most recently Ghost / Landscape (with John Gallaher; BlazeVox Books, 2016) and the forthcoming Dark Horse (C&R Press, 2017). Her awards include three residencies at Yaddo, where she has held the Martha Walsh Pulver Residency for a Poet, as well as a Hawthornden Castle Fellowship, a Fundacion Valparaiso Fellowship, and three residencies at the American Academy in Rome. She is the recipient of grants from the Whiting Foundation and Harvard University’s Kittredge Fund. Her poems appear in New American Writing, The Harvard Review, The Mid-American Review, Poetry International, Passages North, Nimrod, and many other magazines. She has published essays in Agni, The Gettysburg Review, The Los Angeles Review of Books, The Iowa Review, The Literary Review, The Kenyon Review, and elsewhere. She is Editor-in-Chief of Tupelo Quarterly, Associate Editor-in-Chief at Tupelo Press, and a contributing writer at Publishers Weekly.