Monday, 16 December 2013

Mea Culpa

The Véhicule blog doesn’t belong to me. It’s an extension of the press I work for. Everyone at the press makes use of it, but not as heavily as I do, and to date, it’s become a useful way to hype Signal poets along with other Canadian poets I like, and place links to cool essays and interviews and discussions. I do some self-promotion, but I try to keep that to minimium, and I’ve tried, as best I can, to keep it separate from my full-on criticial ventures (but sometimes, alas, I slip up).

I took down the “Just So We’re Clear” blog post today because as I watched, to my horror, very smart people continue to find ever more dubious (to me) evidence of my misogyny (case in point) I began to be seriously concerned that the growing narrative of my "gender myopia" would ensnare my authors and, ultimately, the press. It sounds paranoid, I know, but it’s clear a lot of people are very pissed at me—or the version of me comprised of body parts messily sown together from various resentments and grievances—and guilt by association is a big worry of mine when it comes to Signal (I’m acutely aware some poets I publish want no truck with my poetics). Also, as the hyperbolic bickering about my CV2 interview has gone on unabated over the last week, it's become hard, for some, to notice how unhinged the language, and arguments, have started to sound (soon someone will say I eat babies).

For the record, I did sincerely mean to praise Sina’s ability to attract smart female contributors (and believe me, I will never use the word “pack” in polite conversation again). I also concede that I was mistaken in some of my facts about CWILA. I think people could have found more interesting ways to draw attention to those errors that didn’t involve promptly demonizing me. But then, that’s the fire I play with. And I’m totally fine with that. I was just concerned that, by using the company blog, I may have risked fanning those flames to the press, and my poetry series. Already one of my poets has been singed: privately attacked for being, of all things, a “Starnino Booster.”

Anyway, that was my worry. The post is back up mostly because I realize it was stupid and a bit cowardly to take it down, but also there needs to be some pushback, somewhere, to what seems to me an increasingly acceptable form of literary criticism: suggesting white literary critics are latent rapists. I’m writing this extended note because I’d like to try to change the conversation regarding Guri’s piece, and that means making a full disclosure (one that may surprise my good friend Jason!). I’m an admirer of Alice Oswald. And I mean, a big admirer. I think she’s exhilarating. Dart is one of my all-time favourite books of poetry; for a while after it came out, I pressed it on everyone I came across. I pre-ordered Memorial, and relished it as well (maybe not as much as Woods etc. or the more recent Weeds and Flowers, but then these are all very different projects) So, I don’t like to see her get panned as much as the next fan.

But I’m a professional, and that means—or what it means for me—is when I read a skeptical review of a poet I really like I strive to decouple my own feelings from the work in order to assess the strength of the argument. The possibility that Memorial may be a flawed effort can’t be wished away because it’s unpleasant for admirers to think about or because the person raising that possibility is white and male. So, is Jason right? I mean, is it at all possible that Memorial is weak in the ways he insists it is? He finds fault with the “willed breathlessness” of Oswald writing, he cites examples of her “easy, go-to solutions” for creating what he calls her “Brutal Hyperreal Lyricism.” In short, while he admires parts of the book, he finds it “boring.” Helen never really addresses any of that. I mean, yes, she quotes those complaints, but they inspire her to instead pore over every clause and syllable of Jason’s review, looking for evidence of “prejudices, privileges” while leaving the substance of his argument untouched. 

Is that good criticism? Not for me. Helen suggests Jason is wrong. Fine. Is he wrong because he gravely misunderstands the way Oswald constructs an image? Is he wrong because he utterly fails to appreciate the subtle ways she builds music into a line? Is he wrong because he completely misunderstands the sophisticated philosophical framework the poem’s anti-war message hangs on. No. Jason is wrong because his neural circuits are simply too “loaded” with white maleness to properly appreciate Oswald’s beyond-all-argument genius. I admire Oswald greatly—and if pressed, I might even use the word genius when it comes to her magical line-making—but I have a fundamental problem with Helen’s line of attack. I would love to read a piece where she takes on the specific terms of Jason’s aesthetic complaints, rather than appear to take down the entire review because of his gender. Am I digging in? Damn right. I don’t like this sort of critical approach AT ALL. Helen’s “spidey sense" is useless to me. And so warning white male reviewers—or any reviewer—to “tread carefully” when it comes to female poets (and here I think the taste-as-rape argument clearly motivates her word choices) demeans Oswald’s poetry because it suggests that the poetry is too eggshell-fragile to survive a robust defense of its very real literary merits.

Like I said, the blog post is back up. I’m sorry if I inconvenienced anyone, and want to underscore it was done out of concern for my charges—the men and women who have entrusted me with their excellent books, and who I don’t want to see hurt at all by this increasingly bizarre imbroglio.   


Anonymous said...

Interesting that a comment I made here last night was removed. Ironic.

For the record, it expressed disgust with how effectively this post misses the point.

Anonymous said...

Nice try, C-dog. I guess h8ers gon' h8.

Anonymous above: thank you for that constructive comment. I guess the point is: any time a man criticizes a woman, it's sexist, especially if, god forbid, words are used.

Patrick Warner said...

An interesting post, Carmine. I didn’t understand what you meant by never using the term “pack” in polite company again until I followed the links and read both your interview with Tim Bowling and the piece entitled “Reflections On Risk and Running with the Pack” posted on the Hook & Eye blog.
The offending quote from your interview appears to have been this: “I think that’s why the Lemon Hound site is so successful. Female contributors feel like they’re part of a pack, like they have cover, ” which the Hook & Eye Blogger (“Erin ?”) read as follows: “Further, by utilizing “pack,” especially in reference to a site with “hound” in its name, Starnino elides women with animals rather than with a literary school or coterie. Women are under siege and they’re just a pack of bitches.”
This is an absurd interpretation of your comment. It reeks of theory. In the context of the review—and the particular paragraph—you are clearly using the term “pack” in the sense of a group activity or group thinking. I read that section of your interview as an honest attempt to highlight what appears to be—at the moment—a particularly challenging literary environment for women (and for some men—see Ken Babstock’s comments under your original post). I can`t help wondering about the broader questions, i.e. what is the source of this anxiety? And why are so many writers willing to subscribe to a censoring group mentality, to enforce a culture of secrecy and surveillance?

Anonymous said...

There's nothing more dangerous than a stupid liberal, especially where something that calls itself 'liberalism' is the dominant ideology. Canadian university campuses for example, or anywhere else where literature and the humanities are paid for by government grants. I don't even know what 'feminism' means anymore, except that I'm supposed to support it and never disagree with it even for the sake of argument, otherwise I'm a misogynist or deluded/self-hating woman (you can't win this game no matter what your sex is). 'Sexist' is another handy portmanteau word: it's the easiest way to condemn something when you can't think of a proper argument. You've got nothing to apologize for, Carmine. You just need to moderate comments so that hysterical garbage doesn't get in the way. You can erase my comment if you want to too. Maybe it doesn't help. I'm not white but have to be careful what I say because I've been labeled as an 'Uncle Tom' before (even though my labelers didn't realize how outrageous and offensive that term is to someone whose ancestors actually were slaves). Besides, by saying 'hysterical' I've probably just started the witch hunt again. Oh sorry, 'witch hunt' is a male chauvinist term too isn't it (are there male witches? real ones, not tedious male Wiccans I mean).