Since reading Magdalena Zurawski's response to the negative review of The Bruise and the recent conversation between Dale Smith and Kenny Goldsmith in Jacket, I've been thinking a lot about this concept of innovative literature. I know the word "innovative" is used to distinguish between conventional, traditional modes of writing and more experimental work, but I wonder to what extent "innovation" is now a primary concern for writers who identify themselves as avant-garde or post-avant, and what the consequences of that might be. When I hear the word "innovation," I think of technology, mass production and one-upmanship, impatient American culture of consumption and disposability. I think of my new "energy-saving" refrigerator.
Most people, I'd bet, would say they value originality - that word seems to have nothing but positive connotations. But I don't think we all share the same definition of originality. I don't see originality as at odds with acknowledging influence; nor do I see it as at odds with dialogue with other people (alive or dead). I mean, if you really produced something completely original, or innovative, nobody'd know what it was, right? The product wouldn't communicate. I think much of what's tagged "innovative" in literature actually sacrifices communication, and I'm not sure what for. To fool people into believing one is "ahead of one's time"? It's hard for me to buy some imaginary historic timeline of art, some Structure of Poetic Revolutions. Do publishers ask for "innovative" work because they see poetry as a science on which the progress of civilization depends? Are we rapidly approaching a glorious point in time, an apotheosis, when nothing could possibly be any newer? Are we going to heaven or something?
In the Jacket conversation, Goldsmith states explicitly that he is interested only in making an impact within the history of art - so as not to be ignored - and that he has made a career of it by showing "the art world that poetry was as up to date as anything they were showing in the museum." And he suggests, as many avant-garde or "post-avant" writers have, that "adventurous" poetry has been "marginalized." By who, though? How is it that avant-garde writers (and not artists - somehow the other arts are different, according to Goldsmith) have less power than writers who aren't avant-garde? This argument always fails to account for social class. The truth is that the poetry is "marginal" because it's written for a privileged sliver of the American population. A more accurate term than "marginal" would be "special interest."
A writer's sense of audience is important. You might write alone in a room, but that room is in the world, right? If one's chief aim in writing poetry is to be innovative, then--given the historical exclusivity of art, the still limited access to higher education, not to mention widening class divisions--can one's sense of audience be anything other than an insular group of people who mostly come from the same privileged social class? And whose poetry, therefore, will not be innovative but apolitical, regardless of claims made on its behalf?
The desire to be read and be recognized is essentially the desire for human exchange, i.e., communication. Perhaps the purest form of trade. One thing I've liked about living this poetry life is that it often maintains elements of folk culture (readers as writers and vice-versa; opportunities to interact with other writers), unlike arts that are more firmly situated within entertainment/pop culture (marked by sharper divisions between artist and audience; a more passive, less participatory situation). If one's sense of audience is grounded more deeply in the entertainment model, that is, in the absence of genuine human exchange, then the desire to be recognized may become the whole point of writing--and then we've got ourselves a delusional poet, one whose values seem oddly similar to those espoused by Reality TV shows. I see this delusion in the pettiness, the wastes of breath I find in, say, negative reviews in lit journals, in the petty criticisms on blogs.
Writing to communicate is inextricable from valuing community. In Dale Smith's impressive defense of poetry's "communicative potential," there's an assumption that one has (or should have) an obligation to participate politically in the society in which one lives, and that that obligation is not separate from the work that one chooses to do/make. This happens to be a characteristic I've admired about many poets who live in my city--I draw inspiration from them, from the commitments that are evident both in their writing and in the work they do outside/around their writing (often their jobs).
It's important for me also to distinguish here between "community" and "network." Sometimes people conflate these terms. It's the difference between talking to/about somebody to know the person and talking to/about somebody to use the person. When a writer starts meeting innovation quotas, as I once caught myself doing in grad school (by, say, incorporating types of parataxis, disjunction, fragmentation into my writing), at the expense of saying what needs to be said, that writer is networking, not writing.
Taking chances, breaking habits, questioning norms - especially one's own - becoming conscious - yes, I understand the importance of that, in writing, in living. I have a hunch that originality derives from being relentlessly true to oneself (as cliche as that may sound), and that can be impossible to measure, impossible to quantify, and hopelessly subjective, which might nag the more scientifically-minded among us. But innovation for the sake of innovation is something to question. For real.