"Barnard Notes, or, I can’t believe the Difference
is Spreading"

by Linda Russo

It seemed to her such nonsense–inventing differences, when people, heaven knows, were different enough without that.

–Virginia Woolf, To The Lighthouse

Implicit in the title of The Barnard Conference (April 8-10, 1999), "Where Lyric Tradition Meets Language Poetry: Innovation in Contemporary American Poetry by Women," is that we were meeting to discuss facets of a particular location: where do lyric tradition and language poetry meet? In a place called "innovation." That settled, we might confer toward determining what innovation looks like via where it is located: to draw some lines, so to speak, as a boundary? Around as a sort of embrace? As a grid of the relations between lyric tradition and language poetry? Having many passionate poets, readers of poetry, editors and critics in the room, this would be an arduous task, which ardor was played out at various interesting moments, in various tones and on various visages. Marvelous receptions, readings, and roundtables were scheduled around panels; energies were constantly in flux, ideas diffused, digested–but rarely deployed.

That poets of the Lyric and Language Poetry Traditions were different enough (appreciatively so); that most weren’t there to invent new differences was clear enough. But having been set up to meet, and perhaps since this was a first meeting, the arrayed poets preferred to discover samenesses in what they feel poetry to be, rather than discuss difference. Or "Invent difference," even for the sake of argument, or as a way to invent new, innovative possibilities. One decisive moment was Friday’s Roundtable Discussion with Rae Armantrout, Lucie Brock-Broido, Jorie Graham, Barbara Guest, Lyn Hejinian, Brenda Hillman, Ann Lauterbach, and Harryette Mullen, moderated by Elizabeth Frost, which left many members of the audience with defeated expectations. The roundtable response, a sort of remarkably polite consensus, to two particularly provocative audience-member questions, bespoke this. The first: Ann Lauterbach’s response to Mary Margaret Sloan, editor of Moving Borders: Three Decades of Innovative Writing by Women, who requested that the panelists discuss points of difference, as per, in part, the different tradition each has worked in/out of/through. Lauterbach replied, "Language poetry, that moment happened quite a while ago. It’s not that we want to be polite, but that the points of disagreement are now less under contention and more something like absorbed," to which Sloan disagreed, clearly hoping for less complacency among panel members. The second, Rachel Blau DuPlessis, asked the panel if they’d be willing to speak to how, in the spirit of the conference, the fact of gender had intervened in the dissemination and reception of their work, and someone responded "We’d prefer not to speak of gender," and no one dissented.

To be fair, Keynote Speaker Marjorie Perloff made a major push, pointing out that we’d all been "polite" and then proceeding to "pick" on a particular poet whose language she found "lame," rhythms "ugly"–as well as urging for writing along the lines of poetics that was not merely of the "what I believe poetry to be" sort, calling for poets to do more work theoretically, and calling for more reviews of contemporary poetry.

Aside from what seemed rather settled or to have come, on that weekend, to some sort of settlement, the conference raised among other things the issue of possibility, via those titular notions "meeting" and "innovation." But this particular meeting suggested this one possible innovation: that the notion of poetic "possibility" has been run aground, i.e. the innovative/experimental imperative to "make possible" via non-normative methods (abstract lyricism, disjunction, challenging subjectivity, etc.) has come to an impasse. The form of several presentations served to confirm this, making a case for Ms. Poet X as innovative because she exhibited qualities a, g, and m and challenged notions 3p and 6t, while gesturing toward the possibility of z9627r. As though the possible were thoroughly "exhausted," as in tired, at rest, can’t go on, mapped out not only as a potential, but as an actuality. And as though conference attendees were, well, not wishing to be polite, but suffering from absorption. Shouldn’t we agree also on the terms? Or rather, argue over them? So surely locked in lexicons are we really onto possibilities after all? Or merely options? On the syllabus for CW680, for week 9, we’ll compare possibility as a convention and as a potential, and then discuss the potential as a convention. Go to the zoo and write a sonnet or do a chance operation on three different brands of alphabet soup. Isn’t possibility all about including as many things as possible after all?

The merest semantic shift brings about new conceptual ground. Why not dwell in probability? What is it to open the field of the probable? How does that resonate with the openness poems have? It seems more valuable and more ‘open,’ less authoritative ( i.e. having to do less with the self than with the shifting field in which one operates) to work towards making things probable. Yet it implies perhaps some necessary discipline, that the realm of the probable is slightly "smaller" or more determined than the possible — after all, anything’s possible, but only when something is considered it is probable or it is not. Discipline — eventually one must choose one route of all possible ways, and one chooses, most likely, the most possible, so that it seems the possible is a subset of the probable, and so that moving towards the probable is opening onto new ground. Rather than spreading difference perhaps ‘an otherness that is imagining’ (Duncan).

[For a fuller, more candid account of the proceedings, see Linda Russo and Logan Esdale’s collaborative response, "A Barnard Report" in the archive of SUNY-Buffalo’s Poetics List, 4/19/99.]


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BIO: Linda Russo's poems were recently published in Potes & Poets Press New Chapbook Series. Her essay "The 'F' Word in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction: An Account of Women-Edited Small Presses and Journals" is forthcoming in Talisman: A Journal of Contemporary Poetry and Poetics.

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