Stephanie Young talks Bay Area poetry culture
Oakland poet Stephanie Young, who recently released Ursula or University with Krupskaya, answered questions for The Town Crier based on her essay, “In Which Metaphors For Poetry Communities, and For Writing About Them, Abound.” Last month, we featured Part One of the interview.
The Town Crier: You describe the internet as playing a key role in the positioning of yourself in the literary community. You also mention other ways of “map-making”: through institutions, MFA programs, or research (such as going through writer’s biographies and anthologies). Do you think the internet is changing the way people position themselves in a community, or are these other, more traditional methods of map-making still equally present?
Stephanie Young: I hope you won’t mind me quoting myself from a paper I gave at a conference last year, organized by the Poetry & Politics Research Collective at UC Santa Cruz. The paper is titled “Precarious Reading” and I was trying to think through a similar set of questions:
I remember visiting a poetry class taught by Kasey Mohammad in the early aughts, where I gave a short talk on publishing, and being a poet, and in this talk I was very keen on the democratizing possibilities of the internet and poetry communities outside institutions (such as MFA programs). This was pre-YouTube, pre-Facebook, pre-Twitter, pre- any number of things. The time of Friendster. I remember talking about kingmakers, and how, in part thanks to the internet, I didn’t need one and neither did you. I’d seen my peers experience various but always fraught relations with kingmakers or would-be kingmakers, these powerful, generally male poets, often faculty 20 years older than ourselves and who, it seemed clear, passed on power (or attempted to) mostly in the interest of self-reproduction, securing continued critical attention to their own work.
I’d written my way into the public conversation about poetry, as so many people did, by way of a blog. This freed up the conversation for people who didn’t go to the right program, didn’t know the right people, whose identity markers or class backgrounds or personality issues didn’t make it particularly easy to go to the right program or know the right people. Whatever was still centralized in U.S. poetry, whatever had increasingly organized itself around the academy, from the national poetry series to the canon, seemed ever more de-centered, dissolving, making all sorts of other things possible.
Ten years later I feel a little silly. The democratizing possibilities of any technology can always be, and generally are, successfully monetized, recuperated by power at that point in the cycle when they generate profit.
And ten years later I’m somewhat bewildered by the internet’s speed and its impact on small press publishing practices, so central to poetry communities. Others have said it before but it seems worth noting that such speed is born of, borne along by, flexible labour—the speed of social media mirroring that of collaborative online systems that manage global supply chains. Public conversations about poetry have mostly migrated to these locations, to the short, fast forms—Facebook, Twitter—where links to slightly longer publications get posted, re-posted, and commented on briefly, new content rising in the morning and generally disappearing the same afternoon. There’s been something like a centralization of U.S. poetry discourse on the internet, too, at locations such as Jacket2 and the Poetry Foundation’s blog, Harriet. Something like a surplus of publication, perhaps even critical reception, but declining time and attention for reading of longer duration. Anyone can write themselves into visibility, but who reads it? In such a context, might hierarchies of authority and guarantors of value—kingmakers, or cultural organs with some capital—come to matter as much as ever, or even more?
TC: Outside of your own poetry, have you participated in any community-based events or projects?
Stephanie Young: I’m happiest when I’m working with other people on all sorts of projects. For a long time I did Poets Theater in various capacities. Recently I am excited about the Anti-Surveillance Feminist Poet Hair and Makeup Party, or rather, parties! You should totally throw one in Toronto and send photos to firstname.lastname@example.org! I’m also managing editor for Deep Oakland, a project that began with some institutional funding but now goes on without institutional support, instead relying on erratic volunteer labour and limited financial support from a community organization. A lot of my life seems to straddle that divide.
This month there’s a symposium at Mills called Cruel Work, which Juliana Spahr and I organized together. The panels will be held on campus but we had a reading group in advance, to discuss work by Kathi Weeks and Lauren Berlant, who will both be presenting. That reading group was held at the Bay Area Public School, a radical pedagogy project and community space downtown, and readings after the panels will also be held at the Public School, with poets Jasper Bernes, Dawn Lundy Martin, Wendy Trevino, and Jackie Wang. Juliana and I have worked on several projects together, many collected in a book we edited, A Megaphone: Some Enactments, Some Numbers, and Some Essays about the Continued Usefulness of Crotchless-Pants-And-A-Machine-Gun Feminism. And I’m enormously honoured to be a new editor, beginning this year along with Brandon Brown, for Krupskaya Books.