As Stephanie Young knows, Google buses have been accused of destroying community in San Francisco.
While researching for an upcoming Puritan essay on literary community, Oakland poet Stephanie Young’s work proved invaluable to me. In her recent collection of essays and poems, Ursula or University, as well the introduction of Bay Area Poetics, which she edited, Young explores the concept of community, while also looking into literary, social, political communities and the intersections between them. “January 2011,” for instance, starts as a meditation on Eileen Myles’s Inferno. Then it fragments and begins to take in the larger collection of voices and influences a contemporary poet must negotiate in their work. This excerpt, from midway through the piece, shows how the personal, poetic, political, and social collide within Young’s work.
In the early hours of New Years Day 2009 I was with my friends the poets
at a party in Berkeley. Some people were leaving one party for another,
or going home, or cleaning up. Driving down the hill.
Somewhere in the middle of the thing I made that failed, I quoted
Bataille, I was trying to say something about Oscar Grant’s murder as
unexceptional, as symptomatic, as the Reverend Lynice Pinkard says,
“Let’s be clear: The shooting of Oscar Grant in the back by BART
police officer Johannes Mehserle was horrific, but it was not ‘crazy.’ It
was not the act of a rogue cop or even a ‘poorly trained’ one. In reality,
the forces of unbridled self-interest and private ownership, interlinked
with and supported by white supremacy, have so shaped what it
means to be a police officer that Johannes Mehserle was doing little
more than what he was set up to do.”
Bataille says “In the upside down world of feast-days the orgy occurs at
the instant when the truth of that world reveals its overwhelming force.”
— from “January 2011” (Ursula or University)
The fluid, shape-shifting style of “January 2011” allows social, political, and literary commentary to mix with what is traditionally considered the ‘poetic.’ A similar balance shapes many of Young’s stand-alone essays, like “In Which Metaphors For Poetry Communities, and For Writing About Them, Abound.” The essay was originally published in Jacket2 and is included in Ursula or University. Using this essay as a jumping off point, Stephanie Young and I traded emails about her poetic community. That exchange is below, largely reproduced in its entirety.
TC: How does being part of the Bay Area poetry community (yours in particular, which you describe as being the local experimental/postmodern/avant-garde/innovative poetry community) affect your poetry, if at all? Does being part of a community change your work, or does being part of community serve a purely social function for you?
SY: At a book release reading several years ago, I began with the acknowledgements that preface D.W. Winnicott’s 1965 book The Maturational Processes and the Facilitating Environment. He begins like this: “First I wish to acknowledge my debt to my psycho-analytic colleagues. I have grown up as a member of this group, and after so many years of inter-relating it is now impossible for me to know what I have learned and what I have contributed. The writings of any one of us must be to some extent plagiaristic. Nevertheless I think we do not copy; we work and observe and think and discover, even if it can be shown that what we discover has been discovered before.” Winnicott goes on to thank, among others, his secretary (which got a good laugh I think, when I performed it). Like Winnicott, it’s impossible for me to untangle what I’ve learned from community and what I’ve contributed. Some of what I’ve learned and contributed hasn’t always been very comfortable. I don’t think I could untangle work from sociality any more than contribution from learning, “my life” from others. Being with. One thing changes another, touches it.
In retrospect, Winnicott’s acknowledgements seem to me a tender way of thinking about influence and lineage, that troubled category of “the new.” And interesting in relation to conversations about appropriation and conceptual writing.
TC: In your essay, you mention the concerns of your community as being “sociality, exchange, power relations, group formations, the local’s interest in the local as such, the local talking to itself.” Can you expand on this a little bit and address some of the concerns you see as being present in other communities in your area?
SY: In class recently I asked some smart and thoughtful graduate students if they could generalize about the sorts of poetry their peers in the writing program are producing: the currently fashionable and unfashionable subjects and formal impulses emerging from this one small node, a small community one might even say, within the larger MFA creative writing system. We’d just read Mira Schor’s Fail! on the corporatization of MFA studio art programs and attendant pressure on student work, and I was trying to think through Schor’s analysis in relation to the creative writing program, what does or doesn’t apply. Compare and contrast. Obviously there is the art market, rendering any comparison between visual art and poetry incommensurate finally, and I guess I was asking some version of the question you’re asking here—what are the concerns of your community?
The problems of that word aside (whose community? structured around what?), the graduate students didn’t find the question any easier to answer than I do, probably because such concerns are always on the move, transitory. People come and go and so too ideas, feelings, buildings, weather, the current moment—always a little behind or ahead. I’m not convinced we can see the recent past any more clearly, always disappearing, or calcified in group opinion. And yet under that answer are others, answers that feel risky, probably also the case in class that day. It felt risky to me, to write the sentences you quote from above, to attempt to locate something about such concerns. For a while now I’ve been thinking about Bay Area community institutions founded in the 1960s and 70s within a context of liberation movements, cultural activism, small press print culture and experimentation: Intersection for the Arts, Galeria de la Raza, to name a few. And then I’m thinking of the Left/Write Conference Bob Gluck organized in the early 1980s when he was director at Small Press Traffic and the divisions and gaps that appeared there, between writers working with personal identity to articulate political critique and demand, and those moving away from coherent personal identity in their writing to interrogate or dramatize something about the structure of language. That description is obviously a little crude and reduces any number of complexities, but it’s one binary I think we lived with for a while, in the Bay Area and elsewhere, subsequently mapped onto racial, gender, sexual, and class identity. I keep telling people about Timothy Yu’s book Race and the Avant Garde, where he reads social movements as avant-gardes and the avant-garde as identity poetry. It’s so helpful.
Where we are now who knows; since then the MFA system boomed, and those anti-institutional community organizations of the 60s and 70s became institutions. They got funded by foundations, or the city, or no-one; they got de-funded or their budget grew and now they are a very large nonprofit or not. We critiqued them and fought for them and against them. Who is this ‘we.’ They are still here, they still shape things, but also there are a lot of readings in houses, new institutions forming, on the move. There are a lot of new arts spaces and restaurants and Google buses. I suppose I am thinking about space, public and private, up for grabs and fraught. Gentrification, which everybody in the Bay Area seems to be thinking about right now, one way or another.
Thankfully we seem to be far past any easy understanding or one-to-one correlation between this poetic form and that politics, this identity and that aesthetic, but socially, the Bay Area feels haunted, like so many North American places, by the structural divisions, capitalism and its methods, that continue to shape everything from the spaces we move through to the community formations of poets.
I’m excited by several new series in the Bay Area that seem among other things to be working against some of those structural divides, to bring together people from different locations and communities. I’m thinking here about red element, a queer reading series curated by Jack Frost, and the Manifest Reading and Workshop Series curated by Brittany Billmeyer-Finn, Cheena Lo, Kate Robinson, and Zoe Tuck.
Stephanie Young read with Alli Warren, at Mat Laporte and Brenda Whiteway’s braingang series last year. Tune in next week for Part Two of our discussion, in which we discuss her recent projects and the effect of the internet on literary community.