Post 31: 12/3/06
The Grand Piano
There is a famous photograph of Black Panther Party members raising their fists at the art deco monument of the Alameda County Courthouse. I was in the crowd of supporters that witnessed that salute. (Grand Piano 1:15)
The Grand Piano (part 1) is now in print, the first section of a work begun roughly in 1998 and which has been, to put it mildly, a major preoccupation of its ten authors as we worked toward a public unveiling of the project. The work is now begun, and one might also say engaged, as its planned format of ten-part serial publication opens the text, immediately, to responses from outside the work. These too have been eagerly anticipated—as would be true for any author—but the serial format, as it intersects with the question of the politics of group identity, makes the perspective of the "outside" of the work even more significant. Although as a group, I would say, we did not particularly focus on that aspect of serial publication, as with other instances of serial publication (the Victorian novel, soap opera series), what readers say about the work is inevitably going to be reflected in its final form. Even as copies are still being mailed to reviewers and subscribers, word of mouth comments, blog posts, and e-mails are starting to come in.
That is a process that normally would take place on its own time and without comment from the authors. I can't see Dickens responding to e-mails as his plots unfolded, while at the same I imagine he would be very interested in what readers had to say. Unlike the audiences for the nineteenth-century novel, our present-day readership is not a "mass audience," based on book publication, but is structured as an interlocking series of communities—what may be termed "poetics discourse community"—and larger readerships that bear in some way on these communities, often through listservs and blogs. These forms of communities, operating as they do within certain protocols of aesthetic judgment that define them, set up a different structure of reception, and one that is eagerly awaited. Writing of our "poetics discourse community" in the 1970s and 1980s, we (and I am only very generally using the pronoun to indicate a collective authorship that I, personally, only partly represent) are addressing the structures of these communities as they now exist. We (again marked as a generalized effect of collective authorship) are writing an "experiment in collective autobiography," whose nature is unfolding in the terms of the work itself, but also as we (again) will find out what it is we are doing through the eyes of others.
First responses are in, and they raise a concern. Shifting to the pronoun I, I was at first bemused and then put off by questions of the politics of collective authorship or group identity raised by a brief post on Juliana Spahr's blog, Swoonrocket. It reads, in part:
Then couldn't stop reading last week the first volume of The Grand Piano. What to make of first volume of a 10 volume project? Or it feels too early to say much of meaning. Struck by insularity. Almost no one from outside gets in. And how black people show up around sexuality only. As with all collective projects, parts of it really moving (I confess to adoring descriptions of how poetry scenes change people's lives), parts of it frightening. Also struck by how many class issues show up but how they are not coded as such. Very different from how NY School writing deals with class issues. Because children show up several times, kept thinking of how differently they show up in Notley and Mayer writing. Interested also in how For Love keeps rearing its head. (This volume is all about "love," as in love for one's friends; again, not sure what to make of this beyond a certain fascination that I guess is also respect for willingness to use that term.) And was interested most in how Carla Harryman read this work kindly and yet managed to also acknowledge how it isn't just "for love" in an easy sense.
Spahr's response is entirely welcome for its scanning of sites to construct a reading, all which which may be active in any given reading—she is not reducing her reading to a single response, quite the contrary. But it was the immediately voiced and quite anticipated (if not eagerly so) question of group identity and its inevitable process of inclusion and exclusion that caught my attention first: "Almost no one from outside gets in." This is an area, of course, around which much has been said and will continue to be said. Ron Silliman, in his introduction to In the American Tree, claimed that a parallel anthology made up of an entirely different group of writers than those he anthologized would do the job equally well: this has always seemed to me not a terrific response to the question of "On what principles was your anthology constructed?" in terms of decisions that must be in play for any anthology. In writing of the formation of a literary group, of course the first (reasonable, naive, vulgar, contestatory) question that is going to be asked is, "Who's in and who's out?"—and a larger politics might very well be constructed around the question of inclusion in that sense. Let me just say once here that if this is the first question to be asked, it is one addressed in the entirety of the project itself. If the question is, "What are the politics of group identity," my first response would be, "Read The Grand Piano. That is one of the main things it's about (along with many other things, such as our individual lives at the time, the forms of poetry that we wrote, the nature of the times themselves, and how all these constructed our 'poetics discourse community')."
The troubling association in Spahr's response, and the one that asked for a response, was the next sentence: "And how black people show up around sexuality only." At the intersection of the question of group identity and a racial trope concerning black sexuality, this fragment of a sentence is a depth charge, and quite an awful one. In such a sketchy, provisional, and largely open response, how could it happen that a charge of a racial exclusionary logic of this order be made? It took a while for this to sink in. Once it did sink in, a number of us in the The Grand Piano asked Spahr to withdraw the phrase. Otherwise, no problem—it was simply that phrase, what appeared to be a characterization of the politics of our group identity through (or simply linked to) the racial representation of black people in The Grand Piano in strictly sexual terms, that many of us found offensive, and still do.
Spahr's response, in her next post, was partly to apologize, citing the sketchy and offhand method of her blog writing, and partly to defend her perception in terms of her reading of the text. Of course, it was the very condensation of her first remark that left it open to the racial implications that were so offensive, so her greater care in saying what she read in the text, and why she is interested in the question of racial marking in terms of group identity, goes a long way toward clearing matters up. Even so, there are many questions, from the most local to the most general, left unanswered here. For one, given the number of questions of group identity that might be brought to the text (the trinity of race, class, and gender but also regional [West Coast] identity and even "Language poet"), why did Spahr focus so quickly on race? It is because, she says, that she has been concerned with the intersection of race and class in poetics since living in Hawaii and writing the dialect poems in Fuck You–Aloha–I Love You. But even as Spahr qualifies that "this is not [her] autobiography," the question remains—why race, in such detail, with an immediate leap to the claim that race is represented in the book only when sexuality is involved, a claim that explodes any such thing as the complex politics of race in the 1970s and leaps toward the most vulgar explanation? Is there a question of substitution here; is race standing in for other things? Something like that, I think, seems the case when Spahr still cannot read a moment in the text where race is mentioned in explicitly political terms, in the quote above: "There is a famous photograph of Black Panther Party members raising their fists at the art deco monument of the Alameda County Courthouse. I was in the crowd of supporters that witnessed that salute." Here I identify myself as a participant in a support demonstration for the Black Panther Party, around 1968 or '69—does Spahr realize there is an element of political risk, even today, in avowing this? In point of fact, I witnessed or was a participant in many political acts connected with the politics of Black and Third World liberation as a student in Berkeley in the 1960s, was tear-gassed at these demonstrations, saw myself as politically informed by their terms. For Spahr, this is simply a "reference" to the Black Panther Party. I would have to say her reading fails here, precisely at the point where it misrepresents what the text actually says.
But there is a more general concern. While raising the issue of race, and constructing readings in terms of identity, are more than the point—as I have said, the question of group identity is one of the major concerns of our project—Spahr positions herself as an examiner of racial representation in the text without considering its larger goals or purposes, particularly collective authorship. Rather, the text is read to see where and how black people are represented, and generalizations are made. Is this a practice now undertaken in terms of other works of poetry or poetics? Does Spahr pick up a volume of Robert Creeley or Marjorie Perloff or Alice Notley or Jerome McGann and ask, How many black people, in what circumstances, does it represent? What is it about an "experiment in collective autobiography" that led to such a response? This is where critical, even academic, studies of race, class, and gender have much to teach the poetics community, which in Spahr's case, regardless of her awareness of nuances of form and language, reveals an identity politics that won't admit evidence of the larger cultural politics of race. The debate with Spahr, which I do think needs to be a public one, begins here: How to discuss race without race-baiting, or giving the impression of doing so?
As an act of serial publication, The Grand Piano continues—and part of its work is to open the text, in and as a construction of group identity in the past and in the present, to readings such as Spahr's. The group we were then is not the group we are now, if indeed we are a group—it may very well be that "we" are not exactly that group, that its logic has exploded, that history has declared otherwise. That will be to find out, and it is hoped—I hope—that in the process "we" as authors and readers outside the text will be able to work through some of the issues of group identity and identity politics that has just occasioned the work's first, and thus very meaningful, response.
[Text copyright © Barrett Watten 2006.]