Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Josef Kaplan, Friends Forever

I love what my friends write.

They write my favorite things—poems, letters, essays… I even love their silly, minor social media posts about being hungover. I prioritize the writing of my friends: if I’m asked to review a book, I’ll try and review a friend’s book; if I’m asked to recommend a book, I’ll recommend a friend’s. For those I dislike, the inverse holds true: I’m inclined to despise their writing about as severely as I despise them as people. I’ll see something they wrote and read it aloud, maybe to a friend, and make shitty comments about how stupid they are, and about how stupid their writing is. If I see them give a reading I might snicker through it, maybe do that thing where I close my eyes and kind of hold the bridge of my nose with my thumb and forefinger, as if their reading is giving me a headache because it’s so stupid.

This has become such a common pattern in my appreciation of poetry that I’m not even really sure anymore how much of it corresponds to any actual quality of writing.

I’m kidding.

But maybe not entirely. We find friendships through shared sympathies, shared experiences, shared thinking around writing and what its goals should be: what’s interesting, what’s beautiful. Mainly, my friends in poetry make writing that has compelled me to them, or their writing has developed in concert with our friendship and therefore reflects that.

And people whose values I disagree with, their writing often reflects those values as well. They write (what is to me) inane or offensive shit. Or their behavior with regards to their writing—how they choose to publish, or contextualize their practice, or treat other writers—reveals that they’re fucked up people who shouldn’t be taken seriously.

But then again, I’ve definitely had the experience of disliking someone (and subsequently disliking their writing), only to discover years later that they’re actually great—they’re smart and funny, and sweet—and that (surprise) their writing is actually really great too, in ways that I must not have appreciated at first because I was too distracted by the petty, paranoid complaints I had about their character.

So, when Brian asks “what writing can contribute to further investigating the post-crisis present,” I turn to my friends.

Additionally because so many of those friends in fact emerged from the various anti-austerity struggles that flowed from the financial crisis of 2008. (Brian included!) Or, if they were friends I had found in poetry beforehand, our relationships matured—we became, through a common politics, more focused in our combined understanding of aesthetics, and sense of solidarity and affection. I think about my own writing: it’s informed as much by the questions about poetry my friends made available to me—through countless arguments and agreements on different poetic forms and methods, and traded discoveries of new writers, films, artists, etc.—as it is by a concern with the topical immediacy of the life situations we had found ourselves in together.

There’s a way in which the stylistic range in ARMED CELL can attest to this. These are poems described as responding to the upheavals of the “post-crisis present,” but beyond that characterization they often have very little in common with one another in terms of how they appear as poems. The journal doesn’t serve as a site for one self-evident vision of a “post-crisis poetics,” but for many—coming from many different writers, each coming from distinct networks of other writers operating in different ways, each with their own sympathies, rivalries, and background debates.

It’s a pretty straightforward and conspicuous point, but one that can also sometimes get lost in more monolithic, determinist readings of “political poetry” that frame certain styles of writing as purely the result of political cycles and therefore best suited to elucidating them (even though those readings can be good too): the kinds of poems we take to be “political” (much as with their “quality”) has a lot to do with our social lives. It has to do with the poems our friends are writing and reading, and introducing us to, and how they respond to our own writing and the writings of others, especially if those friends are the same people with whom we’re trying to make political things happen because the intensity of that kind of undertaking can create a lot of trust.

Which is to say: it’s not that the more broad economic and political contexts don’t matter. They of course matter. They’re unavoidable—our social lives are largely conditioned by them: where we can live, how we can live, how we respond to those circumstances… they stage the worlds we end up interacting in. But translating those worlds to the aesthetic is never a direct or exact process. The political essence of a moment doesn’t just appear, incontrovertible, within the content of a poem. It’s interpreted by the poet and by the readership the poem finds itself in front of, and therefore the critical specifics of different communities—what they reinforce, what they condemn.

These influences are interrelated but not in any one, inevitable way. And their particular interactions produce writing that is equally particular, unique in appearance and intended effects despite its maybe shared affinities with other forms of poetry, like many of those found in ARMED CELL. While unbound by any one particular poetic program, the works in ARMED CELL find their coherence in a general atmosphere of purpose or collective belief, and sometimes even lacking that, simply the fact of some of these writers being close to one another, and supporting each other, and making space in that support for whatever styles of writing might be useful for someone at whatever point in time for whatever reasons.

Hence the aesthetic caprices of friendship: writing poems for and to your friends, building a poetics out of cliquish favoritism that endlessly works to justify what is at heart basically the extra-literary enjoyment of each other’s company. I’m in favor of it. And I’m in favor of it because of its capriciousness. Because the mutability of friendship can so quickly upend what had previously been an inarguable, decisive conviction about what renders a poem legitimate as art. That’s good, I think. You shouldn’t believe the same things about poetry for too long—writing the same essays, the same poems, making the same points over and over and over again. Nobody needs to just read that same shit forever.

One way to at least start to prevent that is by having friends whose writing you’ve decided to take seriously no matter what it is. Because, when they inevitably write work that contradicts what you expect from them (because life has changed them in some way, as it does), you can’t just dismiss it as garbage because you know they’re good, smart people who care about writing in the same way you do. And that trips you up and forces you to reconsider your own writing, and your reasons for writing it, and the place of that writing within more, and more different conversations.

This helps keep you from turning into a boring loser who lectures people about things they don’t care about, and then gets mad at them for not caring about it.

There’s a rough equivalence in politics. Like when you have people who stubbornly offer the same rote analyses and suggest the same rote strategies no matter the singular characteristics of any proximate situation they’re hoping to influence and/or encourage. These people are generally hard to work with—they tend to be the same people trying to take over and self-aggrandize, and in the process defuse whatever actual momentum and strength a situation might have available to it. I guess I’m talking about the “dude with a bullhorn” archetype here, but there are plenty of other examples. Basically, they’re lame because they look at a popular effort like a resource to be managed rather than a collective process, and therefore tend to lack the self-awareness and sensitivity required to participate in a helpful way.

We all know poets like that. I don’t think those poets will ever contribute much to investigating anything.

I think those investigations will instead probably come from more mutual relationships, from writers who, in their love for one another, become more open to being altered—to begin to write differently, think differently—and therefore maybe more open to how crises can require us to be altered as well, and to act in ways that reflect that.

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