Junk Shot! with Jennifer Scappettone
On June 11, in the midst of the BP oilspill, Jennifer Scappettone delivered a talk at the Penn/Columbia Poetics Conference: Rethinking Poetics, that, to my mind was one of the few satisfying re-thoughts, and which she described as a "post-Paterson" intervention. Her "Poetics of Enormity" is part of a larger multimedia installation project Exit 43 and questions such key poetic concepts--old and new--such as particularity, ambience, materiality, that, emerging from Williams' attempt to capture the city, shudder in the face of the new "impossible objects"--whole ecologies catastrophized by corporate malfeasance. I will post my first question and her answer as part of a larger dialogue with Scappettone, to be posted in installments as a kind of "junk shot" to the flow of this blog, as it moves towards a foreseeable conclusion.
Milutis: Let's start with a hypothesis. Big poems are about big things (e.g. the epic), small poems are about small things (e.g. haiku). With Paterson, Williams would transform this tendency by using the small to get at the big, (but without the slight-of-hand of, say, Virgil talking about his apiary to describe a military panorama.) Williams works through and ultimately against devices like analogy--with various degrees of success--so that the small keeps its smallness, and the bigness of Paterson is an accumulation of encounters with these particulars rather than a synthesis (5 or 6 books of "clarifying" and "compressing").
So, in what you term a "post-Paterson" intervention,"Poetics of Enormity" (a piece-in-progress for the larger book/installation, Exit 43), you take on the issue of the big, of "enormity," in our current context. You start off "It seems the trouble is enormity," and later, make a pointed reference to Williams' attempt to understand something really beyond his powers of understanding; you rewrite his opening invocation as: "To make a start, out of enormity, and make it particulate, scattering the sum,/The poem a site for the restreaming of post-pastoral, post-Paterson fact in motion/as junk in the limbs."
Given your move from particulars to enormity, how do we START with enormity? What are the devices to get at this enormity? And, if this is an ethical position, is it somewhat quixotically or ironically so, or do you sense a path through the enormous?
Scappettone (sent January 6, 2011): The move away from a modernist—or modernist-cum-late-20th-century-creative-writing-workshop—focus on building a syncretic work out of particulars toward an aesthetic undertaking to confront a massive scale from the start is of course pointed (pointed through dispersion of focus, that is). While our immediate ancestors may have felt themselves to be laying the groundwork for a life of enhanced production, health, and leisure, we found ourselves mired in an epos that perceives itself to be unfolding in the eye of catastrophe, faced by the sublimity of unprofitable alterations in arrangements of resources and power: a widening gap between rich and poor in the face of dwindling provisions, environmental devastation and the invention of new diseases, the collapse of long-performative fictions of value, to take a few salient examples, and the violent conflicts that proceed from these conditions.
Starting from enormity requires a hell of a lot of research. No longer can the poet make a promising start, it seems to me, by pausing to meditate on the minor souvenirs or phenomena of the immediate moment without some sense of their complicity in the greater web of relations. Artists committed to intervening in sublimity as opposed to representing it alone need to take a stab at comprehending the totality of trouble or promise as it is embedded in the medium at hand: language, its structures of feeling and cognition, now and here but also, ideally, over time and across space. Comprehension of systemic workings would permit us to choose our subjects or objects carefully—since part of our trouble as producers is a superabundance of possible willing object/subjects, a need more astutely to search and sift through them, or at least to identify good reasons for reproducing the circumambient tsunami of information/stimuli. Devices for getting at enormity include web researches, naturally and inevitably, but also the obsolescing library, as it turns out our problems aren’t altogether new after all, though our presentism suggests as much. It seems important to include traces of the arduous research process within the work, to function like the drips of painterly epochs past, signatures of care/curation. I don’t see this aspiration, which is also an ethics, as ironic in the least, though perhaps it is quixotic.