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Introduction to Issue#5 The Editors

As the political divisions in this country seem more contested and irreconcilable than ever, the scene in American poetics seems to be revealing itself as equally divisive. In the political realm, there is, of course, the divide along ideological and party lines, as well as along religious beliefs and secular values. These conflicting paradigms seem as tense and dialectical as ever. In some ways, it is an atmosphere that is reminiscent of America in the 1950’s replete with a growing social conservativism, an increase in government control (e.g. the Patriot Act, the Academic Bill of Rights), and a manipulative leadership obsessed with creating an overall feeling of fear throughout the country (e.g. of communism and homosexuality in the 50’s and terrorism and homosexuality today). In poetry, there is a divide, as there was in the 1950’s, between so-called academic writing on one hand and writing outside of institutions of higher education on the other. In the 1950’s it was the academic formalism of the New Critics like John Crow Ransom, Allen Tate, Cleanthe Brooks, et al. and the Black Mountain Poets, the Beats, the San Francisco poets, and New York School on the other. However, is the divide in American writing today the same as it was then?

We would argue that a schism does exist, but it comes through in a completely different guise. On the surface it seems to be a divide between academic or, even, so-called ‘workshop’ poetry, and poetry that exists outside of this, whether as performance or through independent writers unaffiliated with any university. Although these labels seem inadequate, there remains a clear gap between writing that is deeply interested in the processes of language and a poetry more interested in drama: e.g. the MTV-style performance poetry of Russell Simmons’ Def Poetry Jam on one hand and avant-garde writers concerned more with craft and the nuances of language on the other. There is also a rift today between writers who have been influenced by theory, philosophy and other ‘intellectual’ thought (esp. deconstruction, post-structuralism, postmodernism, etc.), and writers who tend to reject this kind of thinking. This schism is among poets who absorb and celebrate the indeterminacy and uncertainty brought about (at least in part) by postmodernism and the social realities of postmodern society, and writers who reject it. Perhaps this gap is not really a division between academic and non-academic poets, as much as it is a divide within the academy itself. Or, perhaps the divide is really multiple divides?

In a survey in The Bloomsbury Review last summer, various poets were asked the question: “What recent trends in American poetry do you find troubling or worrisome?”[1] As you might imagine, the responses present often bitterly divided ideas about what poetry is or should be. There are complaints about Postmodern Language Poetry on one hand and confessional narrative poetry on the other; or, academic experimentalism versus performance poetry; or, avant-garde writing versus writing with more depth and meaning. But, perhaps, Paul Hoover’s insight is most telling: “I don’t find much that is worrisome in poetry; it’s the political life of the country that scares me.” Hoover’s assessment seems right on here, yet there still remains a concern about the way in which competing paradigms and varying trends contribute to and participate in the ongoing conversation over poetics – some are simply sophomoric and juvenile and quash any real dialogue, while others seem to inspire and provoke evocative and worthwhile discussion. Quite possibly, the new avant-garde may do the opposite of previous avant-garde movements throughout literary history (e.g. Dada, Surrealism, Objectivism, the Beats, Language) have done. That is, instead of subverting or undermining previous sensibilities, they actually absorb them. David Barbiero suggests something similar in his essay “Avant-Garde without Agonism?” where he claims there is more openness to a “plurality of influences” within the avant-garde today than ever before. There are poets in this issue of Double Room, for example, who have accepted the kind of influences presented by movements as diverse as Surrealism and Language or Imagism and Symbolism, and have adopted strategies from both. Consider Joyelle McSweeney’s sprawling and eclectic mix of surrealist impulses and disturbing syntactic disruptions. Or, read Tom Whalen and Gene Myer’s comic, idiomatic anecdotes that borrow from the dream world as well as absurdities from quotidian reality. On the other end of this swinging pendulum—Paula Koneazny, Martha Ronk and Matthew Cooperman—are writers who continue to remind us of the dangers of language and the instability of narrative. Or, the poetry of Robert Gibbons and George Kalamaras whose dense metaphysical explorations are tempered with wildly imaginative figurative language and irony. We are also happy to feature several translations of French poet, Jean-Michel Malpoix, whose work is imbued with twisting philosophical ruminations, as well as airy images. And, we’re of course, pleased to feature several poems from prose poet master, Russell Edson who we interviewed in our previous issue. You will certainly find an eclectic mix of voices from poet to poet, writer to writer. Our Special Feature this issue includes a a digital essay on Jen Bervin’s wonderful text, Nets. W. Scott Howard puts forth a largely debatable claim that this book of ‘deletions’ can be read as a prose poem. Certainly, as Howard notes, the book demands various interpretations and readings, but is it prose poetry? We leave that for you to decide.

And, of course, there is our Discussion on the Forms section, which brings us to our final point. George Kalamaras, one of the poets published in this issue who responded to the same question in the The Bloomsbury Review noted above, said this: “I find troubling a continuing distrust of imaginative and surrealist poetries, as well as a seemingly strict adherence to more strictly defined genres in which genre-bending forms like the prose poem are often suspect.” We largely agree and hope to explode that mistrust with the work included here and with our ongoing discussion on these forms. We remain dedicated to furthering and promoting the discussion about what constitutes prose poetry or flash fiction, and resist the urge quell the dialogue with weird and, often, unfounded suspicions. We think the work here provides its own legitimacy and creates its own space in this burgeoning movement we call pp/ff.

We also want to point-out that the January/February 2005 issue of American Book Review, guest edited by Double Room co-editor Peter Conners, highlights some of the same issues we have been discussing in the last five issues. One reason we point to this is that the journal includes reviews of numerous books from the pp/ff genre that are certainly worth reading. It also includes an article by Jamey Dunham that highlights many of the other journals devoted to exploring pp/ff, including Sentence, Cue, Minima and more. A perusal of this will undoubtedly expand your ideas of this genre. It is becoming increasingly clear that the pp/ff community of writers is beginning to constitute a new kind of avant-garde, or, at least, a voice somewhere among these multiple poetic movements. And, it is voice that seems to be gaining momentum everyday.


[1] Davis, Jon. “A Survey by Ray Gonzalez.” The Bloomsbury Review Vol. 24/Issue 3 (May/June 2004).