by Cosmo Spinosa
The state of poetry today necessitates that most poets must engage in labor that in no way coincides with their identities as poets. With the rise of MFA programs, small presses, and poetry venues outside of the university, poets who work inside of the university are few and far between, their positions within the university often coveted. I grew up in a generation where I learned to be a poet taking example from those who were institutionally received as poets. At that time, I thought that institutional reception was the goal of poetry. I thought it was possible to reach that goal. Now that I have been in the poetry community for a while, I realize that goal is all but unattainable. The type of social capital necessary to join the ranks of the university, and the requisite and specialized quality of cultural capital poets in the university have to garner in order to hold and maintain their position seems to take a certain toll on those willing to pursue it. And although some time ago it may have been more possible for certain poets to attain these positions more easily, now most have abandoned that pursuit altogether. This is not only a necessary, but a good thing. The cultural reception of poetry today, its difficulty in being recognized and integrated into a larger cultural consciousness, requires poets to be devotees, and not hobbyists. It requires them to be called into a poetic body, as Sara Larsen says in her final essay of ALL REVOLUTIONS WILL BE FABULOUS. In fact, it seems that poets we know now, the poets we read now, the poets who seem more and more relevant, are not the poets with institutional ties. They are the poets whose labor exists outside of the realm of poetry–those that have to live double lives, those whose first job is poetry, whose second job is whatever pays the bills. I think about the split world, the split brain of the poet whose labor resides outside of their work, and I think about the necessary intersection that must occur when one is both a poet and something else, how those worlds collide, sometimes unknowingly, to create this captivating and disturbing friction.
Larsen’s book begins with a litany of horrors–Abu Ghraib, the BP oil spill, Gitmo, the hellish landscape that is the result of late capitalism. What can we do in the wake of these events? How do these events affect our consciousness as poets? Much of Larsen’s book is concerned with this dialectic: in the midst of the hellish world that late capitalism has created, how does one write a poetics of resistance? How does one maintain and nurture imagination in a space whose sole purpose is to sap both imagination and action? Larsen responds to these questions in many ways throughout the course of her book, but the most striking response to these questions occurs in the first few pages of the volume: “Vision and imagination can end these hells. ONLY they can end these hells. The forces of war have their vision – they have not faltered or doubted it. We want VISION, not hypnotism. IMAGINATION INCUBATES ACTION.”
Vision, imagination, action. Not only in the wake of those horrors that fill the news, those things that are both in and out of our control, but also in the landscape of everyday life. The ways they are necessarily intertwined, or as Larsen says,
Our bodies, our consciousness, the things we choose to do with them, and those events outside of our control, are all interconnected somehow–in the way they are managed and policed, in the way they are forced into flows of production, in the way they are used by us and by others. Can poetry be a revolutionary practice? Larsen thinks so. When investigating and really thinking about the meaning behind the position that “IMAGINATION INCUBATES ACTION,” the revolutionary potential of poetry becomes more clear. The function of imagination in a revolutionary context is one that exposes the shortcomings of a social reality and engages with them, but also thinks outside of them, considering what can be done to bridge the gaps between that reality and an imagined one. It is through this exposure and its distance from an possible imagined reality that poetry can function in a revolutionary context, guiding the way, or imagining the way out and into new possible realities. I think of this as I read many poems in Larsen’s collection, but one in particular stands out to me:
This acknowledgement of the inferno of late capital carries with it a mirrored function of possible lives outside of it. The way our bodies are resources to be exploited, a plainly appraent quality of life under the guise of capitalism, is an obvious reality. But Larsen’s work seems always to point to the and yet, the possible alternative to the way things are. When thinking around this text, I am reminded of Marx and Engels’ concept of “literature of indirection”–the thought that literature, unlike theory, should present those facets of our social reality that we find troubling in an indirect way, one that does not pose clear answers to counteract those problems, but instead provokes the reader into asking the question: “What can be done?” Much of Larsen’s text leaves me with this question, leaves a silhouette of possible alternate courses, but does not necessarily provide a direct answer. What can be done is writing. Writing is a form of resistance. It is perhaps the first step in undoing the brutality of our current state and reaching towards the possibility of its betterment.
Maybe I began this review with an anecdote about my experience with institutionally vetted poets because those poets are in fact working within the framework of a capitalist reality that upholds their prestige and glorifies them, because their existence as such is proof of a reality that buys into them just as much as they, however unwillingly, buy into it. Larsen’s closing essay, “5 Minutes for the Poetic Labor Project,” reveals an alternative to the choice to be institutionally defined–one that focuses on building a poetry community outside of the institution, a community that the poet feels drawn to for its own sake:
The calling to poetry is a calling outside of employment, outside of the exploitation of capitalism, outside of the institution, and towards the poet’s own desire. A calling towards a desire that is unattached to labor and production in a capitalist sense is revolutionary in itself. It casts off an exploitative framework in a radical way. It proves that life is possible without it.