Monday, March 26, 2012
A few paragraphs of Lorna Dee Cervantes
I'm finding it fascinating. Stein approaches the people he's interviewing with a gentle self-effacing humility, allowing his own ignorance to awaken to the heart of the person he's talking with. The interviews are wonderfully free of the glibness and unspoken agendas so prevalent in much news media "reporting" these days.
I found out about the book when poet friend Lorna Dee Cervantes showed me a copy when we connected and talked for a while at the AWP conference in Chicago this year.
Here are a few paragraphs from Alex Stein's interview with Lorna Dee Cervantes in Made-Up Interviews with Imaginary Artists. The short excerpt here doesn't begin to cover the amazing range of subjects Cervantes talks about in the interview; she also talks about her childhood and her first encounters with poetry, and her long in-depth research into the histories of the Jim Crow laws (both written and unwritten laws) in the United States in the 20th century -- and much else.
In the excerpt here, Cervantes has been talking about her experiences working for many years as a university professor, and the nature of life and work and thought in the academic world.
There is certainly a place for theory. I do believe, though, that one should not analyze one's own milieu. People should write critical work and do critical scholarship, but ideally in another language that is pretty near extinct. This is what I try to teach: that there must be a place for creative generation that is distinct from selection, distinct from revision, distinct from judgment. Camus said the whole purpose of art is to escape judgment. One should never analyze the generation of one's own work. Yet that is the chief project of these institutions of higher education. We live in an economy of goods and services. Forget Capitalism. Goods and services. Of which poetry supplies neither. That is why you can't look in the phone book and find it between plumbing and poultry. Call up somewhere and say, "I need a good poem." The institutions of higher education have gone into this corporate mode. Which has precipitated this crisis of legitimization. How many dissertations have got to be written about me before I can be considered legitimate? Is there a mathematical formula? Before people in authority respect me as an intellectual and think of me in that context? Before they validate me and listen to me and concur with me and change their minds on my account?
In my field, in the humanities, in this goods and services economy, we are working in this legitimization factory. And some of us are being put in the awkward position of trying to legitimize ourselves. These questions! These undermining questions. How are people going to see me? Where am I going to fit in? When I was selected for the Norton Anthology of Poetry, their staff was calling me over and over and saying, "We need a bio, we need a bio, we're not going to be able to include you if you don't send us a bio." They wrote these letters. But I didn't respond. And I was thinking, am I insane? Here is my opportunity. People would kill for this chance. But I still didn't do it. They ended up constructing one themselves.
What happens in some English departments is that instead of sticking to actual conditions and relations -- or, in other words, history -- it becomes about how smart you are. Who has the superior intellect? Who has the superior vision? Who is playing tennis with all the right people? I'm not talking ego. I'm saying look at the conditions of power. Look at the conditions and look at the relations. Soon everyone is fighting and in competition for the little crumbs of grants and little travel disbursements and they are spending all their time writing proposals. It becomes this thing where you have to assert yourself in the half-light, again, of what Kunitz called "the tyranny of the single idea." Identity politics. Multiculturalism. Political correctness. Who has the right interpretation? Is it modernity, or is it postmodernity? And postmodernism is not even a thing! It is not a movement, it is not an artistic style, it is not anything. It is not a noun. It is not a verb. It is a condition. A consciousness. And it is a gestalt consciousness. A gestalt is like one of those black and white drawings you find in a book of optical illusions. Sometimes you see a face and sometimes you see a vase. That's why I keep saying you have to dwell among actual conditions and relations.
Postmodernism is a gestalt consciousness. It comes from subjugated knowledges. This is what the United States was turning away from in the '60s. One of Foucault's big ideas is "the insurrection of subjugated knowledges." Back to the esoteric philosophies from the Far East. Back to Zen Buddhism. You can't say hippie is one thing. You can't say Chicana is one thing. You can't say Latina is one thing. Like, "How Chicana are you?" Right? Can you really answer that question? These are taxonomies. Hierarchies. And we are forced into this. "We're not going to be able to include you if you don't send us your bio." This is the mode of scholarship in the institutions of higher education right now.
In addition to the interview with Lorna Dee Cervantes, I've read also, so far, parts of the interviews with Cecilia Vicuña and Joanne Greenberg; the others look promising too. I recommend Made-Up Interviews with Imaginary Authors by Alex Stein.
I think of how we keep trying to say we are real, as if the good fairy is going to make Pinocchio and Pinocchio-ette real at last. But they never seem less real than when we try to market ourselves . . . or argue for ourselves. It's creepy in a way.