Slow Poetry: Recipe for a new avant-garde?
In a earlier posting, we examined the curious ascendancy of Flarf,a subgenre of contemporary poetry that originated as a series of intentionally "bad" writing stunts by a small group of experimental poets, but has since developed into a self-styled avante-garde insurgency. Flarf appropriates the dominant information technologies of our to era to harvest the linguistic detritus of our culture and remix it into a provocative anti-aesthetic. In exploring "the inappropriate in all its guises," from the tasteless and the juvenile to the disturbingly "offensive" and politically incorrect, over the past decade, Flarf has laid claim to the critique of late capitalism and postmodern culture advanced by 20th century Language Poetry and Critical Theory.
Judging simply by its notoriety, Flarf has succeeded in positioning itself as an irritant to mainstream literary standards of craft and taste, but over the past year a rival sensibility has emerged to challenge its pre-emptive claim to being the exclusive 21st century poetics of resistance to the status quo.
So-called "Slow Poetry" is the coinage of University of Texas at Austin based poet/critic Dale Smith, who has written extensively on the concept in his Possum Ego blog. Smith's often cited analogy is to the "Slow Foods" movement founded in Italy in the late 1980's by Carlo Petrini to resist the monoculture of fast food (i.e., MacDonald's opened a franchise near the Spanish Steps of Rome in 1986) spreading across Europe and defend the regional, culturally-based cuisines based on wholesome, locally produced fruits, cheeses, wines, and vegetables.
Slow Poetry's culinary associations are readily apparent, but Smith's use of the term refers more broadly to an entire constellation of progressive thinking (i.e., the so-called "Slow Movement" and "Slow Theory") about the aesthetics of environmental sustainability and renewable resources, the reassertion of various localisms as a response to the encroachments of corporate globalization, and perhaps most immediately, to a reconsideration of the roles of process, tradition, and pleasure not only in the writing and reading of poetry, but also in other kinds of art making.
"While conceptual poetry and flarf provide contemporary approaches to poetry, it seems that more radical uses of the poem could be theorized," Smith wrote in the summer of 2008. "The slow food and slow biking movements offer possible models. By turning away from innovations that increase the speed of production, poets could rediscover valuable skills from older methods. Pace in this slow poetry sense becomes a greater concern. Value could be placed on the withholding of vital details and the slow release of vivid particulars within rhetorical situations driven by a desire to disclose new knowledge. Such disclosures of knowledge, feeling, and perceptions help expand capacities for living in contemporary cultures, empowering potential agents for other forms of disruptive acts. Poetry, if concentrated on plausible conjectures of reality, can help transform other conjectural definitions of it."
In the intervening year, a significant number of poets and critics--many of them with present or former ties to the University at Buffalo Poetics program and the Buffalo poetry community--have responded to Smith's call "to ask more complicated questions and form practices with greater potential for ourselves—if no one else—to prepare for confrontations with global disruptions of communications, distribution systems, and political and social tyrannies." No fewer than seven of the contributors to the new online anthology Slow Poetry: An Introduction compiled and edited by Smith at Big Bridge.org have connections to the "think globally, act locally" ethos of the Buffalo scene.
After a brief homage to the late David Foster Wallace, whose fiction Smith feels was caught in the same paradox that plagues contemporary poetry (i.e., that of a self-reflexive art form trying to engage ethically with the postmodern culture that produced it), Smith launches into his main argument:
"When I began writing about Slow Poetry, I wondered if poetry that dramatized the dark and stupid could matter much longer So I began framing raw questions that might help myself and others respond meaningfully to these dark and stupid times. I wondered how I could make sense of what's happening around us through poetry, through art? Perhaps Slow Poetry could be a way to help orient attention again in art to the world. I liked the term, too—Slow Poetry—because it associates with Slow Food and that now-global movement's linking of pleasure for food with a commitment to community and the environment. If we can enjoy poetry—itself an essential form of nourishment—why not also take into account the contexts of its making and reception?
Smith initial thinking was influenced by Systems strategist, John Robb, who has written of "global guerrillas" and "resilient communities," both describing networks of people affiliated by interests of family, kinship, geography, and available resources. "[Robb's] accuracy of description for weakened nation-states in which people re-assembled life at all levels of sustainability suggested a model for how poets might address their roles in a cultural and social moment where once-vital institutions—everything from publication to conventional farming practices—have been losing claims of legitimacy for several decades."
Also figuring in Smith's Slow Poetics is former Black Mountain College and UB based poet Charles Olson's dictum: "Whatever you have to say, leave the roots on, let them dangle, And the dirt, Just to make clear where they come from." Biodiversity is recombinant, but it leaves behind specific genetic markers that are retraceable in our patterns of thought and language.
"But what can poetry possibly do to strengthen networks of people involved in the ongoing complexity of their lives?" asks Smith. "Well, for one, Slow Poetry values communication between author and reader. Its strong preference for the local, the personal, the hand-made, and the accessible invite broad participation in the ideas and potential exchanges art can foster. Slow Poetry values tradition, too, as a way of understanding the past and our familial histories. By tradition I don't mean that we must abide by canonical texts established by literary 'authority.' Tradition is nothing more than a contested history of the uses of books and objects that have produced active conversations and responses for particular people who question their identification with the world around them.
At this stage of its development, Slow Poetry appears less descriptive of a specific body of work than a conversation about how American poetry can respond to a 21st century paradigm in which the false prosperity of our "bubble economy" has been pricked, and the myth of a globalized Pax Americana shattered by the improvised exploding devices of asymmetric warfare. It has been dismissed in formalist circles as a social activist movement rather than a literary one. If Flarf and conceptual poetry perform a kind of critique of information culture that is focused in its excesses and feeds off of them, Slow Poetry aims to be nothing less than a reinvention of how poetry is read and written in a post-consumer culture. If Flarf sets its sights low and relishes in its degradations, Slow Poetry aims to reclaim small, integral parts of the world.
With respect to these criticisms, Smith writes: "As we discover our affinities for particular books or people, we must remain open to challenge by others for whom other possibilities remain of value. If we are in a period of great resource contraction, we'll begin to get to know again local ways, and the familial roots that sustain life in more or less permanent locations. Of course, the Internet, perhaps for a time, or indefinitely, will help keep us in touch over greater distances. But the work begins at home, in the particular exchanges of a daily practice that ensures goodness remains active and alive in these dark and stupid times. And even if Wall Street magically recovers, and the global economy somehow defies nature and manages to once again extend capital's model of growth-at-all-costs, it is the position of Slow Poetry that we must learn to once again inhabit the local, and to abide by its claims, if we are to avert catastrophe."